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Early legal advice for separating couples but no mandatory mediation

Separating couples will get early legal advice as part of the Government’s family court reforms, but the idea of introducing mandatory mediation has been scrapped.

A legal advice pilot will be launched to help families agree child arrangements quickly, addressing barriers to early resolution including a lack of understanding of the options available such as mediation, which will still be an important service for many couples.

The role mediators can play will be bolstered through improved domestic abuse screening and advanced DBS checks, meaning they have the right vetting and can support children earlier in the process. This, alongside the mediation voucher scheme, which has already helped nearly 25,000 families, will mean more couples can resolve their issues without ever reaching court.

For those who do end up going through the courts, a successful pilot in North Wales and Dorset, aimed at reducing conflict, will be expanded to the family courts in Birmingham and southeast Wales, ahead of a national roll out.

The model improves information sharing between agencies like the police and local authorities, so victims avoid retelling traumatic experiences.

It also allows judges to review more documents before a case gets to court, to prevent further conflict in the courtroom, and gives children extra opportunities to explain how they feel about decisions which affect their future.

Justice Secretary, Alex Chalk, said: “There is no one-size-fits-all approach for separating families, which is why we’re ensuring people have access to early legal advice and mediation to resolve disputes as early as possible.

“These reforms will help spare thousands of children the long-term harm of lengthy, combative courtroom conflict. More than 60,000 private law children and contested finance cases went through the family courts in 2022.

“Long-term conflict between separating parents can have a devastating impact on children’s wellbeing. The trauma has been linked to increased rates of anxiety, aggression, and depression, and can lead to anti-social behaviour, academic struggles, and substance misuse.

“Mediators can help avoid these issues by working with both parties together or separately to find a solution that works for them, rather than have a solution imposed on them by a judge.

“Greater use of mediation also allows family courts to better prioritise and provide protection for the most serious cases with safeguarding concerns where it is not an option, such as domestic abuse and child safety.

“Following consultation on mandatory mediation concerns were raised that the proposed safeguards to protect domestic abuse victims may not go far enough. To avoid forcing a continued relationship between a victim and their abuser the government will not change the law to mandate mediation for separating couples.

“We are working with the Family Mediation Council to improve training for mediators on domestic abuse and help them develop a screening tool – such as a questionnaire – to better identify victims at the earliest opportunity.”

Please contact us if you would like more information about the issues raised in this article or any aspect of family law.