Couples advised to seek legal advice before mediation

Lindsey Canning Lindsey Canning 01 February 2024

Plans to introduce compulsory mediation for separations have been shelved, with couples being encouraged to seek early legal advice instead.

Following consultation last year, The Ministry of Justice (the MoJ) has decided plans for forced mediation, to keep family disputes away from court, will be dropped in favour of couples seeking help from a family solicitor and being offered voluntary intervention.

The push towards funded, accessible legal advice is hoped to facilitate independent legal advice and conversation within a formal setting, as well as offering better safeguarding for victims of domestic abuse.

The Government’s changes include a new region-specific legal advice pilot programme to help families agree child arrangements quickly and address barriers to early resolution, which will also collect data on the potential benefits of publicly funded early legal advice.

Lindsey Canning, head of family law at Wake Smith, discusses the Government’s change of plan.

The background to this initiative was for people to attend mandatory mediation to try and gain a resolution, but also help free up court time. Anyone not attending mediation could have faced a financial penalty.

Voluntary mediation is still to be promoted and should be undertaken unless exemptions apply.

Domestic abuse victims will be referred to appropriate services, with the ministry working with the Family Mediation Council to improve training for mediators on abuse and identifying victims.

Providing funded access to early legal advice would help break down barriers to early dispute resolution and would improve the information available to parents/carers, so they can make better informed decisions, potentially leading to quicker and improved outcomes for everyone be it through mediation, litigation or non court route.”

The new region-specific legal advice pilot programme aims to improve information shared between agencies including the police, local authorities and courts, and will allow judges to review information and ask for further documentation before cases get to court.

A more investigative, problem-solving approach in family proceedings involving domestic abuse or substance misuse allegations piloted in North Wales and Dorset, is also being expanded to family courts in Birmingham and south-east Wales, ahead of being rolled out nationally.

Mediation information and assessment meetings as directed by the family court are also being strengthened by the removal of 'outdated' exemptions such as bankruptcy.

Mediation has played a successful role in resolving disputes with the MoJ's mediation voucher scheme having helped over 24,000 families to access mediation and attempt to resolve their issues without resorting to court, with the Government continuing to invest up to GBP23.6 million by March 2025.

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