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Free mediation scheme criticised

25th Aug 2014

This week, the government announced a scheme that will fund one free mediation session for separating couples if one of them already has legal aid. Lawyers have criticised the move, however, saying it will have little effect on those resolving issues outside of court.

Following last year’s cuts in funding, the government has been trying to encourage people to attend mediation rather than pursue matters through the courts, as this can make the process cheaper and faster.

So far though, most efforts have failed, due to the reforms in legal aid. The six months following the cuts to public funding for many private law family cases, saw a drop of 51% in the number of couples attending mediation sessions. This accompanies a lack of money being spent on mediation by the Ministry of Justice in 2013/4 – of the £24m set aside, only £9.4m was spent.

Many of those criticising the legal aid cuts and the single free mediation scheme believe this is due to removing lawyers from the process. Before, lawyers had been the ones to suggest mediation to their clients, and the government is now failing to promote the service.

Almost two thirds of couples who held a single mediation session last year reached a full agreement over a child dispute. Simon Hughes, family justice minister, has stated that the government is aware of the fact that mediation works, and stresses that they want more people to use it.

However, Jo Edwards, chairperson of family lawyers’ group Resolution, has said that this idea, although welcomed, is still limited by the fact one party has to be eligible for legal aid. She hopes that the move will help some separating couples go through the process with minimal conflict, but doubts it will have a significant impact.

Instead, she urges the government to re-allocate funding to help couples obtain legal advice and learn of all the options available, of which mediation is just one.

Free legal services were made unavailable in most cases involving divorce and custody disputes from April 2013, in an attempt by the government to cut the legal aid bill.