Lawyers have expressed doubts about the usefulness of the new scheme which provides separating couples with a free session of mediation funded by the government. Lawyers have stated that they doubt the scheme will increase the number of couples who manage to resolve their disputes without taking them to court.
Jo Edwards, Chair of Resolution, a family lawyers’ group, was one of the voices expressing doubts. While she welcomed the move, she felt that it would have little impact. In particular, she pointed to the fact the scheme is only available in cases where one party is eligible for legal aid.
The new scheme was announced this week by Simon Hughes, family justice minister. It is intended to bolster the government’s efforts to promote the concept of mediation. The government believes that mediation can avoid courtroom battles, and provide an alternative that is both faster and cheaper.
However, the government has had little success in its efforts to encourage mediation so far. These efforts began in April 2013 directly following the controversial cuts to legal aid. Despite the fact that these cuts removed legal aid from the majority of cases in the family justice system, the number of couples turning to mediation actually fell significantly after the cuts took effect. In the first six months, the number of couples who attended mediation dropped by more than half (51%), despite active efforts on the part of the government to encourage the process. The Ministry of Justice has a £24 million fund set aside for mediation, but due to low usage rates only £9.4 million of this was actually needed.
Some have suggested that the reason that fewer couples are using mediation despite the lack of legal aid for courtroom battles is down to the reduced involvement of lawyers in the process. Previously, lawyers would have informed clients about the availability of mediation. Without legal aid, many couples are never consulting lawyers and simply heading to court as litigants in person. Critics have also pointed out that, despite the introduction of several schemes to make mediation accessible, the government has done relatively little to promote or publicise the process.
Despite the doubts expressed by lawyers, the Ministry of Justice remains positive about the scheme’s potential to help couples resolve their issues outside the courtroom. The ministry claims that almost two thirds of couples with child-related disputes reached an agreement after attending just one mediation session. The ministry also claimed that, overall, 70% of couples who use mediation reached an agreement without the involvement of the courts.
According to family justice minister Simon Hughes, “We know mediation works and we want more people to make use of it.”