When it comes to family conflict and relationship breakdowns, January gets a bit of a raw deal. Dubbed ‘divorce month’ across the industry, most lawyers, mediators and affiliated service providers report a sudden surge in enquiries post-festive season.
We all know why! Too much time in close proximity with one another, visits from the in-laws adding to the already tangible tension, and the desire to embrace the concept of ‘new year, new you’.
Historically, this marks the start of a difficult and stressful journey for those involved, including the couple, their children, and inevitably any extended family in due course. Sadly, while the government rhetoric around supporting people to make the process as amicable as possible is very noble indeed, the reality of the situation is often far removed.
Don’t get me wrong, 2022 will see a number of changes that will certainly help to reduce some of the animosity for the couple themselves – including the introduction of no-fault divorce, and the further extension of the mediation voucher scheme.
But what about the people around them? What resource is being put into ensuring that children are fully equipped to navigate their way through their parents’ separation or divorce?
As any qualified mediator will tell you, and as the research shows, when parents separate, children in particular also have serious concerns about what lies ahead.
Common questions include where they will live, what will happen to family pets, will they have to move schools, and can they still spend time with grandparents? Perhaps one of the most poignant issues we deal with at NFM also includes addressing concerns over whether they are to blame for the split.
The impact of not dealing with these issues in a proactive and considered way can be significant, with endless evidence to back up the fact that failing to place relationships and wellbeing at the heart of conflict resolution puts additional pressure on wider public services including the NHS, social services and education.
In fact, Government departments have already established that the cost of family breakdown is in the region of £52M per year the tax burden of which is carried by all.
And yet, while the family courts and the government will profess (very loudly!) that they are hugely supportive of ways to address said concerns, and the need to hear the voice of a child in proceedings via, for example, child inclusive mediation, in our experience there remains a real reluctance to invest in making that happen.
For example, the government funding set aside for mediation relating to matters involving children remains capped at £500, which typically funds around 2.5 sessions. While not to be sniffed at – and I must stress that this is a very, very welcomed initiative that will make a big difference to many families – there is no ‘wiggle room’.
That means that the same sum is set aside for parents who choose to mediate about issues relating to their children themselves, as well as families who embrace child inclusive mediation. And therein lies the problem.
Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that the parents in their first mediation session agree that it would be useful for the child/ren to have their views heard. What follows is a meeting with the parents to discuss the things the parents think should be covered so there is a framework for the meeting with the children. Session 1 – 2
Let’s also assume the children agree to the meeting after the mediator has contacted them to tell them what would be involved. There are then discussions about how the meeting will take place. Is it with each child separately, or all together? The choice is theirs.
All that sorted, the next meeting is with the children, which could be one hour or more depending on the preferred structure, and if there are siblings. Session 3
Session 4 is the feedback meeting with the parents; possibly another mediation session is scheduled if there is need for further discussion to reach agreement; and then a further session to discuss the outcome with parents ahead of implementation – Session 5 and 6.
As a minimum that is eight and a half hours, not counting the admin and set up time.
While the latest MOJ voucher scheme data clearly shows the benefits to families of using mediation – with 77% of cases reaching full agreement, and of those cases 72% do not go on to use court other than to obtain a consent order – in reality there simply isn’t enough funding to cover the cost of including children in mediation as well.
In all likelihood, if more funding was available the agreement rates would improve further, but most importantly children would be spared the agonising and damaging delays they currently experience whilst the family’s life is in limbo waiting for the court.
Once again, the government’s rhetoric on facilitating good relationships to improve the future wellbeing of children isn’t backed up by its actions.
While there is no question that there must be a cap on the amount families can access to facilitate meaningful mediation, some flexibility or a premium payment for including children would open the door to so many families who are currently choosing more litigious routes in order to simply ‘get the job done’.
In our experience, parents who recognise their children have a stake in the family future and give them a chance to contribute to the changes are much more likely to build their agreements with the needs of their children in mind. They are, after all, for the most part, caring, responsible parents who just don’t get on with each other anymore.