Family breakdown is never easy, but mediation can help lessen the sting. Samantha Laurie explores a way of keeping children at the centre
Nevine Bentley’s large Georgian-fronted sitting room in Farnham has seen its fair share of marital discord. It’s here that divorcing couples come to splice up their future: finances, living arrangements, parenting plans.
Navigating bitterness and recrimination to produce an audit of a marriage and a blueprint for divorce is no small feat, but when tempers flare it is mediator Nevine’s time and effort that come into play, rather than a courtroom full of lawyers.
Family mediation makes absolute sense. It’s quicker, less traumatic and far cheaper than an adversarial approach. It takes a quarter of the time of going through divorce courts and can be eight times cheaper, according to the Ministry of Justice. Typically, it costs between £900 and £1,800 per couple and requires up to six 90-minute sessions to produce the key documents for a divorce. These can then be taken to the respective lawyers to become a legal settlement. Two-thirds of families trying mediation reach agreement without going to court.
For parents, family mediation is training for how to continue conversations about their children. It also provides welcome relief for an overstretched family court system – and the hourly rate of a mediator is roughly half that of a solicitor. Two years ago the Government decreed that all divorcing couples were expected to try mediation before going to court – and made extra money available to support the scheme.
Business should be booming. But it isn’t. In fact, mediation services have shrunk since April, when legal aid was withdrawn for divorce in most circumstances. That has led to the loss of some potential clients – previously all couples receiving legal aid were obliged to try mediation. However, there has been little promotion of the fact that families can still get legal aid for mediation itself, nor sufficient encouragement for privately funded couples.
In the past, being ‘expected’ to try mediation has generally been taken to mean that it’s optional. From next year, however, an initial meeting with a mediator will be compulsory for all divorces coming to court – other than where there are domestic violence or child protection issues, or where partners live a long way apart.
Even so, fears Nevine Bentley, lack of public awareness of mediation may continue to prevent couples giving the procedure a fair try.
“The most common misconception is that it’s a counselling service. It certainly isn’t: it’s a structured process for an amicable separation,” says Nevine, who earlier this year set up Facilitate (facilitatefamilymediation.com).
“For many, there is so much emotion and anger, they can’t imagine ever sitting down together and talking, but if you ask them to focus on what is best for their children, you can work through that.”
What it does depend on, she admits, is a willingness to be open and honest. Similarly, for Louise Connolly of TWM Solicitors in Wimbledon – who is also a trustee for the charity Surrey Family and Mediation Services (sfms.org.uk) – getting full financial disclosure agreed early is key. Even in complex financial cases, she believes, mediation can often provide a more creative and flexible approach than the adversarial alternative.
Unlike Nevine Bentley, Louise is a family lawyer as well as a mediator. Some couples value the legal knowledge of solicitor mediators; others seek more specialised counselling skills. However, all mediators will understand the law on child maintenance, benefits, wills, property and other financial issues and will follow a structured process.
Even so, there can be significant differences in charges and other areas. MiD Mediation and Counselling (midmediation.org) in Twickenham – a not-for-profit body affiliated to National Family Mediation – is one of the NFM affiliates trained to offer children of divorcing parents a confidential session to air their concerns.
Keeping children at the centre of the discussion is key, says director Anne Mawer.
“Once you go to court, you surrender decisions about your children to someone else. It is critical to try to keep hold of that process and to salvage something – if just a business relationship – for the future.”
Time spent talking about the nitty-gritty of separation is far better preparation for dealing with the parents’ evenings and birthday parties of the future than an adversarial system that leaves families more broken than ever. Next year’s changes can’t come soon enough.