Family law and mediation

Advice  |   22 April 2014

Fundamental changes in the way family law operates come into effect today including compulsory mediation awareness sessions for separating couples.

Fundamental changes in the way family law operates come into effect today. The changes include compulsory mediation awareness sessions for separating couples and a shorter time frame for cases involving children in care. Sir James Munby, who is president of the family division of the high court and of the court of protection, said that these changes mark the largest reform “any of us have seen or will see in our professional lifetimes.”

Couples wishing to divorce are required to attend a mediation session before taking their case to court. The new rules will make it compulsory to have an initial mediation meeting, described as a “Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting”. The mediation session must be conducted by an approved mediator. There are some exceptions where mediation will not be required, these are:

  • the mediator considers a meeting is not appropriate
  • domestic abuse is involved
  • one of the parties has been made bankrupt
  • an urgent application to the court is needed
  • there are child protection issues

Mediation involves a couple meeting with an independent mediator who will assist the parties in attempting to reach an agreement about money and any children that they may have. Couples may need to instruct separate solicitors alongside their mediation, as mediators are not able to give formal legal advice.

If the couple can agree on the arrangements, there will be no need for recourse to the courts. Couples will also avoid the stress and stigma of having to go to court to resolve their issues. In addition, it is anticipated that the mediation process will take just a quarter of the time taken in an average court case, allowing the parties to move on much earlier from the strain of the separation process.

The new plan also includes a 26-week time frames for cases where children are taken into care. On average, these cases take 56 weeks, so the new reforms should mean quicker and therefore better results for vulnerable children. As this is a new law and no one really knows how it will be carried, there are risks. For example, if a biological parent is on a drug or alcohol rehabilitation programme lasting a year, it is unclear whether the time limit for the care case will be extended.

The changes will also ensure that the right level of judge is appointed for a particular Family Court case, and that it is held in the most suitable location.

Paul Antoniou is an approved mediator and can be contacted by email.