Leading family lawyers have expressed disappointment and concern at the government’s approach to funding mediation sessions for divorcing couples.
The Family Justice Minister, Simon Hughes, recently announced that separating couples will be entitled to one free mediation session as long as at least one of them qualifies for legal aid. This is an improvement on the previous arrangement which meant that only the legally aided party got the session for free, with the other one having to pay.
Mr Hughes said: “We know mediation works and we want more people to make use of it. This is why we are announcing funding for free mediation sessions, improving the advice and information available for couples who are separating.
However, the change doesn’t go far enough for most family lawyers who have been critical of the cuts in legal aid in recent years.
Jo Edwards, chair of the family lawyers’ group Resolution, said the change would make little difference because government cutbacks meant there are only a limited number of cases where even one party qualifies for legal aid. She urged the government to provide more funding to help couples with mediation and other services that help couples resolve disagreements amicably.
Despite the lack of government funding, divorcing couples should seriously consider using mediation as it often proves to be cheaper and far less stressful than going to court.
Mediation involves couples holding discussions overseen by a trained mediator such as a solicitor. This helps them to resolve issues like financial settlements and contact arrangements for their children.
The resulting agreements can then be made into a legally binding court order.
According to official statistics, separations involving court action take about four times longer than when mediation is used. In 2012, more than 17,000 people successfully separated from their partners using mediation.
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