The Children and Families Act came into force on 22nd of April 2014. For the first time it requires would be applicants to court to hear about mediation and how it might be able to help them, before making their court application. This simply gives them a choice of court or mediation before they embark on the court route. As such it is a useful intervention. This meeting is fast becoming known as a ‘mediation awareness meeting’? Its formal name is the Mediation Intake Assessment Meeting or MIAM.
A qualified mediator will tell couples about mediation and the alternatives to court adjudication. This is greatly needed, as put simply, if mediators don’t tell people about how mediation may help them, mostly people do not understand it and don’t try mediation. Before the compulsory referral to hear about mediation from a mediator in 1999, there were only a few hundred mediations a year. After legal aid applicants had to hear about mediation from a mediator in 1999, this rose to about 13,500 mediations a year and it has stayed about the same every year that is until last May, when all compulsory referrals to a mediator for mediation assessment stopped, along with the abolition of legal aid for family cases. Then, couples unaware of mediation simply went straight to court and the number of court applications has increased massively everywhere, with many fewer mediations taking place. The fact is, in many cases lawyers do not sell mediation, they are more likely to sell legal services and to negotiate the case in a conventional, positional way. This increase in adversarial resolution is bad for families, turning them into opponents in what is often an expensive, long drawn out ‘ping pong’ of letters and court hearings.
Compulsory mediation awareness meetings do not mean compulsory mediation, nevertheless many people will choose to go on to mediate and save themselves and their families a great deal of time, money and avoidable stress. If some family lawyers don’t like it, and it is only some lawyers, we have to ask why are they so worried about people simply hearing what mediation has to offer? They don’t have to mediate and no one is saying people should not hear about the legal resolution methods. If people need to go to court, they can still go to court, if they want lawyers to write letters then they can pay for that, but a tiny proportion of cases do actually get decided by a judge, so deciding them even earlier in mediation seems like a good idea to most people.
The reality is that in most disputes over children, the worst thing that can happen to a family is a brutal fight over the children, replete with welfare reports, adversarial arguments and adjudication or shuttle diplomacy between lawyers at court, cobbling something together under immense pressure and making that into an order. A series of mediation sessions over a few weeks or months with changes being introduced and reviewed, improvements made and children’s views taken on board where possible, is just so much better for most families.
Where property and finance issues are concerned, mediation has a massively important role to play in resolving settlements quickly and at proportionate cost. How much do you think should be spent on legal fees of resolving a financial settlement on divorce? Should it be 10% , 20% or some other proportion of the overall value of the family pot? This is the thorny problem the courts are not addressing. There is a court rule that the legal costs must be proportionate to the value of a dispute. This is universally ignored, as it seems to convey no meaning to the judges or the legal representatives. It is common for the costs to be half or even more of the value of the dispute – where is the sense in that? If you bear in mind that in most family cases, unless it’s a very short marriage or there’s a pre nup, there is a starting point or yardstick of equal division of the assets, then the value of the dispute is probably no more than between 10% to 25% of the overall pot. Legal costs frequently exceed 10% to 25% of the value of the family pot. How can that to be regarded as proportionate to the value of the dispute? It isn’t proportionate at all.
So, in a nutshell, the changes with regard to compulsory mediation assessment meetings brought in by the Children and Families Act are mostly welcome and long overdue. Compulsory mediation meetings before court applications can be made will enable a significant number of families to avoid court proceedings and expensive legal costs by choosing mediation, once they know how it can help them. Previously, they often simply issued proceedings and the legal route was the default option. Now a real choice is being offered and it is up to mediators and lawyers alike to help couples make the best choice for their family, taking into account everything relevant to the family. It is the couple that matters most and finding the best way forward for them, not what matters to the lawyer or the mediator – selling the service they prefer to sell. The family is at the heart of separation and divorce, how they sort out their arrangements, which process they use, should be an informed decision they take and the advent of mediation assessment will help ensure public awareness of mediation when they need it most.