Mediation will make the divorce process quicker, fairer and more empowering for both parties, says a family law expert at Manchester-based Kuits Solicitors today to mark the beginning of Family Dispute Resolution Week.
The comments come from Kuits’ Head of Family Law, Katie McCann, in response to further advancements made by the government to encourage divorcing couples to stay out of court in favour of mediation services.
“Last April saw the introduction of compulsory Mediation Information and Assessment Meetings (MIAM) for divorcing couples,” says McCann. “The purpose of these meetings is to provide the couple with information in relation to mediation and other forms of non-court-based dispute resolution. In a further attempt to encourage divorcing couples to use mediation as an alternative to the courts, a free mediation session will now be available, as long as one of them qualifies for legal aid.”
Previously, only the party eligible for legal aid was entitled to receive a complimentary session, whilst the other party had to pay for it. The Chief Executive of National Family Mediation, Jane Robey, says that the new scheme seeks to aid people’s understanding of what mediation can achieve, presumably by allowing them to experience the benefits of it first-hand.
MIAMs, along with the free initial mediation sessions, have the potential to enable ex-couples to reach agreements regarding finances and children outside of court. Commenting on the benefits of mediation the Justice Minister, Simon Hughes states: “Mediation works and we are committed to making sure that more people make use of it, rather than go through the confrontational and stressful experience of going to court.”
As well as being less stressful than court, an additional benefit of mediation is a financial one. David Norgrove, chairman of the Family Justice Review, estimates that, if used, mediation has the potential to reduce legal aid costs by £100million – and it is not only the government who would reap the financial rewards. Ex-couples would also benefit significantly due to the fact that only one mediator is required, as opposed to two lawyers, and the hourly rate of a mediator is commonly less than that of a lawyer. However, families should be aware that, should mediation be unsuccessful and lawyers instructed at a later date, costs are likely to end up higher than they would have been if lawyers had been instructed at the outset.
“There certainly exists the potential for mediation to be a success due the fact that it allows for effective communication between the parties, who are able to speak directly, as opposed to having to pass their opinions and negotiations through their lawyers,” says McCann. “Not only can this save a lot of time, but it also ensures that words are not minced or misinterpreted. Without the court getting involved, an ex-couple can potentially reach a subjective, tailored arrangement that works best for them, without feeling that they are being ordered to do so. Significantly, it is often the non-forced nature of the arrangement reached that attracts separating couples to mediation.”
McCann also thinks that the fact that an ex-couple have managed to sit down and reach an agreement using mediation will mean that they have effectively communicated and compromised with each other. The skills acquired will hopefully allow them to renegotiate their arrangements should they require adaptation in the future, especially in relation to arrangements for the children.
“Due to the benefits attached to mediation, it is understandable why the government are encouraging more couples to attempt it,” says McCann. “Although couples cannot be forced to mediate, the existence of compulsory MIAMs suggests that there is some sort of pressure being placed on separating parties to consider it. However, the government should consider whether this pressure could potentially threaten the success of mediation, due to the fact that it removes the voluntary element – if an ex-couple attend mediation against their wishes, there may be less chance of them co-operating in order to reach a suitable agreement.”
McCann goes on to note that, even when attendance at mediation is voluntary, there are still risks attached to the process, particularly for cases involving intricate financial complexities: “Mediation does not attract the same disclosure mechanisms as the court does and therefore a party may find it easier to conceal financial information during the mediation process,” explains McCann. “This, together with the fact that the mediator remains neutral throughout the process, offering no legal advice, can result in an unfair agreement being reached. As long as both parties are aware of these potential limitations, for many, mediation will provide a welcome alternative to court proceedings.”
Ultimately, McCann applauds the government’s support of mediation: “Anything that empowers couples going through the upset of divorce is a great thing. A settlement reached on their own terms is always better than an artificial result imposed by a stranger: the judge. At Kuits, we are great supporters of empowering clients to reach fair and equitable resolutions in the quickest and most effective way.”
“Of course, while divorce cases can often be extremely acrimonious (and therefore the government cannot expect every separating couple to mediate), for the majority of separating couples, mediation provides a real opportunity for them to settle their disputes outside of the court room – and the service is set to get even stronger in the future.”
Indeed, from January 2015, the Family Mediation Council (FMC) will introduce a new accreditation scheme and new professional standards that all mediators will have to work towards. In addition to this, all mediators and those training to be mediators will have to register with the FMC. It is hoped that the stricter criteria will result in a greater confidence being placed in the mediation system, which in turn will result in a rise in its popularity. Although the government is unlikely to ever make mediation itself compulsory, if its effectiveness is well documented then couples will be eager to use it without pressure.