National mediation charity NFM (National Family Mediation) says it is gearing up for its annual increase in enquiries this Christmas, with many separated couples and families in conflict struggling to navigate the difficulties of co-parenting during the festive season.
While the charity says that for parents who already have a child arrangement in place will know who has the kids, and on what days, for those who have recently ended their relationship the holiday period can be tricky to navigate.
From disagreements over who will have the children on Christmas morning, through to arguments over how much to spend on presents, NFM says it’s not unusual for seemingly small decisions to turn into major disputes when tensions are already running high.
To help deal with their issues, the charity – which helps families to sort arrangements for children, property, finance and other important matters following separation or divorce – is urging people to take advantage of a government mediation voucher scheme.
The scheme allows couples to access up to £500 worth of mediation services which can help resolve matters amicably before they escalate, and which could save thousands in legal fees further down the line.
Commenting on the call-to-action NFM’s CEO, Sarah Hawkins, said: “We see various spikes in enquiries across the year, and the lead-up to the Christmas period is, unsurprisingly, one of them.
“For millions of families it’s a wonderful time to get together and celebrate, but for those who are going through a separation or divorce, it can be incredibly difficult.
“Typically speaking we receive in excess of 12,000 phone calls and 2,400 referrals between October and Christmas Day each year and carry out more than 1,400 mediation sessions. Of those mediation sessions around 82% involve disputes over children matters in relation to Christmas.”
According to the latest Ministry of Justice (MoJ) family court statistics, the number of divorce applications between April and June 2023 exceeded 24,600.
Sarah at NFM added: “Because Christmas is typically considered to be a special event by parents and a moment to cherish with their children, the Courts usually put a specific plan in place that is separate to the wider child arrangement order. This might include, for example, alternating Xmas days.
“However, we know that there has been a real increase in divorce applications this year and that many of those divorces will not yet have finalised meaning that in many cases the parents may not yet have reached a stage where a formal agreement is in place.
“For parents in this situation we usually see the same disputes arise time and time again, including who gets to have the kids on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, which parent attends school activities such as nativity play, as well as when the children get to see extended family and attend family events and who takes them to see Santa.”
Sarah added that due to the cost-of-living crisis, NFM is also seeing issues arise relating to how much to spend on presents, and even holiday treats such as trips to visit Santa, or the Pantomime.
“For couples who are not yet divorced, and who do not have a financial order in place, they are still financially linked,” explains Sarah. “That means that they have shared responsibility for things like mortgages, household bills and childcare, but also share responsibility for loans and credit cards.
“If one person is more inclined to splash out on gifts for the children while the other is more conservative, that can cause a lot of conflict.
“Typically speaking the parents, we work with want to do what is right for the children, it can just be difficult to work together to find a solution when tensions are already running high.
“And while the court may have capacity to hear a handful of the more extreme cases, the reality is that it is too late for most people to go down this route. Mediation is a great alternative, and the funding means it is really accessible to everyone too.
“Parents are even welcome to involve their children in their mediation sessions so that they are able to have their voices heard. And given that we are successful in finding an amicable, fair solution in 9 out of 10 cases we deal with at NFM, we know it works!”
The Government’s mediation voucher scheme is intended to spare families from the trauma of going through often lengthy and costly courtroom battles, which can have a damaging impact on children. Normally each mediation session is charged for unless one of the parties has access to legal aid.