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Family Mediation

President outlines his vision for the future of family mediation

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James Harbottle
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Vision for the future of family mediation

Ian Walker Director/Solicitor/Mediator /Arbitrator Law Society Children Panel and Mediation Accredited
Ian Walker Director/Solicitor/Mediator /Arbitrator Law Society Children Panel and Mediation Accredited

Family mediation has been available for many years, and a recent speech by the President of the Family Division gives an indication of what the future may hold for this excellent method of resolving family disputes without resorting to court.

The speech, entitled ‘Relaunching Family Mediation’, covered a number of topics relating to the use of mediation, of which the following were perhaps some of the most interesting, from the point of view of anyone with a family dispute in need of resolution.

What is mediation?

The first, and perhaps most important, question is: what exactly is family mediation? Obviously, the public need to understand exactly what it is if they are to consider using it, rather than going to court.

As the President pointed out, there is a lot of confusion amongst the public as to what the term ‘mediation’ actually means. For some, he said, it was confused with conciliation, reconciliation or even marriage guidance.

And even amongst those who do understand what it means, there are still misconceptions about mediation. The President went on: 

“It may sound, to parents who may be angry, hurt and heavily defended as altogether too soft an option for them at that time. For others, mediation may be perceived simply as a ‘hurdle to jump’ before getting to court, and not as a serious route to a sustainable solution in its own right.”

Clearly, such misconceptions need to be addressed. As the President explained, “What mediation offers is a structured and safe environment in which those in dispute can discuss and hopefully resolve their problems. It is professional help with problem solving.”

The President clearly believes that more needs to be done to get this message out.

Mediation to be compulsory? when family mediation doesn't work.

At present, mediation is purely voluntary. It can only take place if both parties agree.

However, as the President indicated, there have been increasing calls from some quarters for this to change, to force people to use mediation, rather than go straight to court.

This has been partly motivated by a desire to reduce the workload of the courts, and partly by a belief that court is not the most appropriate place to deal with family disputes.

Anxious to reduce the cost of the courts to the taxpayer, the government has long been encouraging the use of mediation. We saw this, for example, in the government’s recent Mediation Voucher Scheme, which provides £500 towards the costs of mediation meetings.

Another example concerns Mediation Information and Assessment Meetings, or ‘MIAMs’ for short. MIAMs are initial meetings between one or both parties and a mediator, to see if family mediation could be used to reach agreement without using the courts.

In 2014 the government made it compulsory for anyone wishing to make an application to the Family Court to first attend a MIAM, unless an exception applied.

But compulsory MIAMs are not the same as compulsory mediation.

The President did not express a view as to whether mediation should be made compulsory, but did suggest that serious consideration be given to the matter.

MIAMs for both parties?

The President also suggested that consideration be given to the idea of making attendance at a MIAM compulsory for both parties, not just the party wishing to make an application to the court.

The idea, of course, is that such a move is likely to increase the take-up of mediation.

Inevitably this raises the problem of the other party failing to engage with the process. The President suggested that the courts may have to deal with this issue by using costs or other punitive orders against the ‘recalcitrant party’.

MIAM or IAM? child maintenance arrangements

Lastly, perhaps the most far-reaching suggestion of the President was that the MIAM should be replaced by an ‘IAM’.

The President explained that an IAM would be a “meeting to which both parents should be required to attend … with a generalist professional who can impart information [‘I’], guidance and advice [‘A’] more generally about parenting after separation, or, as it may be, resolution of financial issues.”

The IAM would be conducted by a professional, such as a mediator, a lawyer or a social worker, who would also give some basic legal advice, and also refer parents to local services that may be able to help them resolve their problems.

Clearly, the idea is to make greater efforts to keep family disputes out of court, using mediation as just one method of doing so.