In March the Government revealed plans to make mediation a pre-court requirement in low-level family dispute cases. A move that will no doubt help thousands to reduce the emotional and financial cost of divorce and separation.
The announcement hit the headlines just a matter of days before I took over the role of CEO at NFM (National Family Mediation), and briefly before my predecessor Jane Robey officially hung up her hat after almost 20 years at the helm.
What a way to start my tenure, and what a legacy for Jane to leave behind after so many years of campaigning and lobbying.
Needless to say, as a charity that specialises in mediation as an alternative dispute resolution method, we welcomed the move. As well as plans to further extend the current family mediation voucher scheme which makes a financial contribution of up to £500 towards the cost of mediation relating to children with funding now in place until 2025.
It will also introduce a power for judges to impose cost orders, in appropriate cases, on separating couples who do not make a reasonable attempt to mediate.
Of course, the changes will aid the Ministry of Justice’s efforts to reduce demand on the family courts by reducing backlogs and diverting unnecessary cases away from the court.
And while one would like to think that the voucher scheme should have already made a dent in the bottleneck, the reality is that without financial penalties it simply wasn’t enough of an incentive for people whose judgment was compromised by conflict.
These proposals, however, which combine carrot with stick, could genuinely prove a game changer for families in conflict.
We already know the emotional and financial impact of divorce and separation, not only on the couple involved but also the children. By equipping people to deal with their issues amicably and outside of the courtroom we know that we can make a real difference to their lives.
To provide some context to the number of people potentially impacted, over the past five years NFM has seen the number of case referrals increase exponentially, and in any given month the team now deals with an average 700 referrals, and around 3000 telephone calls.
At last count, the mediation voucher scheme had also delivered more than 10,000 vouchers to families in dispute, 77% of whom have reached agreement without setting foot before a Judge.
Bear in mind that is likely to be the tip of the iceberg, with many other couples still bypassing the system and heading straight to the courts to resolve their disagreements and disputes. Under the new proposals, those families will be actively redirected to mediation. A move I confidently say will save them money, save them time, and save them a considerable amount of stress.
It is a hugely positive move in the right direction.
However, what we need now is clarity around timings and next steps.
While it would be naïve to assume that things will happen overnight, it is also imperative that the Government to continue to publicise the benefits of the changes afoot so that it gathers support in advance and so that the infrastructure is in place.
We need to recruit more mediators into the profession to ensure that the industry can accommodate the increased demand, new administrative processes need to be introduced to the court proceedings, and families need to know when mediation as a first port of call shifts from a recommendation to an obligation.
The onus is ultimately on the Ministry of Justice to push these proposed reforms through the parliamentary process, but NFM will most certainly be continuing to campaign to make sure it remains high on the political agenda.