<strong>Celebrating 40 years of conflict resolution through mediation</strong>

Spring is often associated with new beginnings, conjuring up images of flower-covered fields, frolicking lambs and sun-dappled mornings. But for me, Spring is also a time for reflection, and an opportunity to look back at our achievements over the years and the lessons we have learnt along the way.

This year is particularly poignant as we embark on a series of events and celebrations to mark the 40th anniversary of National Family Mediation, or as it was known back then, the National Family Conciliation Council. Four decades during which we have helped to shape the role of out-of-court mediation; supporting thousands of families to resolve conflict in a more cost-effective and amicable way.

Spring 2023 also happens to be when I will officially hang up my hat as the charity’s CEO, after what has been a rather eventful (albeit, at times somewhat frustrating given the endless political upheaval and moving of goalposts) almost 20 years at the helm.

While the charity has evolved considerably since it was established, whilst under the watchful eye of my predecessors and throughout my tenure, we have never deviated from our desire to help combat the distress of divorce by helping couples in dispute extract a liveable future from what was once their family.

It is perhaps therefore not surprising that we are now the largest provider of family mediation in England and Wales.

What has changed with the times however is the government’s attitude to alternative dispute resolution, as well as the way that people access, fund and engage with our services.

A particular milestone in that journey came when The Family Law Act 1996 was introduced by the UK Parliament in an attempt to ‘modernise divorce’. At that time, Legal Aid was also made available for Family Mediation and enabled anyone who was applying for legal aid for their divorce to find out more about what it could achieve in their context of their circumstances, before heading straight to court and litigation.

I arrived some years later, in 2004, in the midst of the Tony Blair administration. At that stage NFM’s HQ also moved from London to Bristol, briefly, before moving again to Exeter which remains our home to this day. 

Around the same time the government also published its ‘Parental Separation – Children’s Needs & Parents Responsibilities’ report, which marked a shift in recognition around the scale of the problem for divorcing and separating families.

This report also suggested that, at long last, the government genuinely understood the cause and effect of poorly managed divorce or separation especially on children.

A step in the right direction, absolutely! Although considering that in 1922 Sir Chartres Biron, the then Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, told a Parliamentary Select Committee that his objective was ’to keep people out of court if possible’*, it’s probably fair to say that the courts and the system more widely does not cover itself in glory with its responsiveness to the plight of families.

Since the green paper in 2004 there have been various developments and iterations of policy and general education. There was the Family Justice review 2010 new legislation (twice)-on child maintenance, various amendments and tweaks to the Children and Adoption Act, and latterly the DWP programme for reducing parental conflict.

However, the general view across the sector is that progress remains slow, impeded by a lack of sustained action and investment, and amidst perpetuating policy paralysis.

Possibly a topic too big to tackle in this particular article, and so back to evolution of mediation.

At the time of introducing legal aid for mediation, the government wanted a regulator to speak with one voice on behalf of its members, and in 1996 the UK College of Family Mediators was formed. But by 2006, following years of under investment the UK college closed.

At this point, NFM, in partnership with FMA and Resolution, took matters into our own hands, and set about forming the Family Mediation Council. Another wave of interest from government resulted in investment to develop a set of standards for family mediation that makes it the recognised body for family mediators that it is today.

In the years that followed ‘The Family Justice Review’ shone a spotlight on an ancient and under-resourced system in urgent need of reform and included 144 recommendations to improve the family justice system.

The report demonstrated the need to keep moving with the times, and that’s something that we at NFM really took on board. We need to be there for families when they need us, and we need to make the service as user friendly as possible to encourage uptake.  

In a nutshell, with more people embracing mediation and as technology advances, we know that we need to continue to evolve our offering to manage the volume of calls and enquiries, and to better meet the needs of our service users and our network of mediators.

Like many other private, public and third sector organisations, the pandemic forced us to accelerate our efforts to upgrade many of our systems to allow families to continue to access support remotely.

I am incredibly proud of the hard work and dedication that the whole team showed during this time, which resulted in the successful launch of MoMO – a digital app that helps clients and mediators work together in a secure space to gather and collate financial disclosure for couples going through separation.

And there are many other things for us to be proud of.

With evidence and input provided by NFM, in March 2021 The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) launched the mediation voucher scheme, and with continued lobbying we have also contributed to the launch of the MoJ’s new Online Dispute Resolution Engagement Session which is ultimately focused on increasing the use of mediation so that judicial resources are freed up for more complex cases where they are really needed.

This is considered to be one of the most positive steps forward for mediation in over a decade.

Over the past five years we have seen the number of case referrals continue to increase as a result of our work, and in any given month NFM now deals with an average 700 referrals, and around 3000 telephone calls. Statistics which back up the Children’s Commissioner findings that more than a quarter (28%) of parents have cited it as a ‘go to’ for conflict resolution support.

It would be impossible to sum up all of the achievements of NFM over the years in just one article, but what I can say is that no matter what challenges lie ahead, I am confident that the organisation will continue to be at the forefront of delivering mediation services nationwide as its popularity increases, and demand grows.

I wish my colleagues and the wider mediation network every success in the years to come. Rest assured I will be cheering you on from the side-lines.

*(Joint Select Committee on the Guardianship of Infants Bill Minutes of Evidence 19 July 1922).