Ahead of National Mediation Week commencing on 16th January, Today’s Family Lawyer spoke with Mary Raymont of Advantage Mediation on the role mediators play in family law – both now and in the future.
What is family mediation?
Family mediation is a voluntary approach to achieve solutions for families involving an independent mediator. This approach is flexible and tailored to meet the circumstances of the participants who remain in control of the decision-making process.
A family mediator helps identify issues to be resolved and the information needed to make informed decisions. Families can then find solutions through discussion and negotiation and reach mutually acceptable outcomes.
As a family law mediator (with a background of being a solicitor), I can give information about the approach of family law and the courts. I do not give legal advice which is for the participant’s lawyers to do.
All negotiations are confidential to enable a frank and honest exchange of views. We spend time developing options and considering the impact of various outcomes by reality testing. If a solution is achieved this remains confidential and is not legally binding. This enables the participants to take legal advice before becoming legally committed.
Family mediation takes a holistic approach to the whole family including children’s views where appropriate.
Not all situations are suitable for family mediation and screening for all forms of domestic abuse takes place throughout to ensure it is safe and suitable for all participants.
What role are family mediators currently playing in family law?
Family mediators are involved at every stage of family law. At the start of any family law issue, consideration can be given to involving a mediator. Family mediation can involve couples, extended family members, and children. Mediators initially provide a triage service considering the team around the family including friends, family, and professionals, assessing, and signposting suitable resources to ensure maximum support.
Mediators can provide an entirely flexible approach involving all interested participants and including, where suitable, lawyers and experts such as family consultants, valuers, independent financial advisors, and independent social workers. Mediation is adaptable to integrate with other resolution approaches such as collaborative law, private FDR, early neutral evaluation, and arbitration and can be used alongside the court process.
All of this is entirely voluntary, but there is a more formal role for mediators to carry out information and assessment meetings for those who wish to resolve their issues via the traditional court process. This certification process is called a mediation information and assessment meeting (MIAM).
Under Section 10(1) of the Children and Families Act 2014, it is now a requirement for a person to attend a MIAM before making certain kinds of applications to obtain a court order. This is because the family mediation process is supported by overwhelmed judges and encouraged by courts as the benefits include, not only reduced costs to reach a solution but also a more amicable outcome.
The Family Mediation Council has given very detailed specifications on the information to be covered in this assessment meeting which usually takes about an hour. At that stage, the participant may never have heard of or understood the alternatives to the court process, and this is a valuable opportunity to review all out-of-court options for resolution.
What frequent issues are family mediators currently encountering as part of the separation process?
When separation occurs, typical issues are housing, child arrangements, and immediate financial issues such as debt, paying the mortgage, and living expenses. Rehousing is often the most pressing issue. This involves a lot of practical work including obtaining mortgage capacity reports, indications of market value, and researching re-housing costs. Pension issues are also common and can be demystified by bringing in a pension on divorce expert.
Since the pandemic, parents have been working from home and more flexibly than before. This has led to parents being more available for their children without the long commute to work and strict office hours. Families have been able to re-evaluate their child arrangements and become more involved in hands on care of their children than ever before.
Family mediation is often described as an underused tool. What are the benefits of family mediation that make increased uptake so important?
Family mediation gives far more control over decision-making to the participants. It is their family, after all, who must live with the outcome.
The family mediation process itself is less stressful than court as timeframes and information are realistic to allow for deadlines and meetings which are achievable.
Family mediation can lead to better outcomes for children with less conflict between parents and in their homes.
It is also quicker and cheaper than long, drawn-out, costly court battles, particularly in these times of budget cuts when the court system is overwhelmed.
Given these benefits, it is only likely to grow in popularity. How do you see the popularity of family mediation and the role of the family mediator developing over the coming years?
The popularity of family mediation will continue to grow as the public becomes more educated about their choices when solving family issues. The government has shown a commitment to supporting families to stay out of court by providing a voucher scheme for parents to proceed with family mediation to resolve children’s issues instead of going to court.
Family mediation is more flexible than ever. Online family mediation enables participants to join meetings remotely making the whole process more inclusive. The next few years seem likely to bring further economic hardship to families as the cost-of-living crises continue and this combined with public awareness of the benefits of cheaper, swifter, and more amicable solutions will embed the role of a family mediator. I see the role of the family mediator becoming the first point of contact in resolving family issues in the coming years.
Family Mediation Week is becoming a permanent fixture in the January calendar, and this provides extensive information and resources about family mediation.