The UK Government has announced plans to introduce mandatory mediation for separating or divorcing couples in a bid to divert more family disputes away from an overburdened and backlogged family court system. The proposal aims to make mediation mandatory in all suitable low-level family court cases, except for those involving allegations or a history of domestic violence or concerns of child safeguarding. The goal is to lower demand within the family court system, protect children from the negative consequences of their parents resolving family law disputes in court and reduce backlogs, enabling courts to hear urgent cases more quickly. Under the proposed plans, separating couples will have to try to reach an agreement on their child and financial arrangements through a qualified mediator, reserving court action for complex issues or cases that mediation has not resolved. The government will extend its Family Mediation Voucher Scheme until April 2025, backed by an added £15 million in funding.
While families may welcome the proposal to ensure better outcomes for separating families and free up court time, it has also raised concerns. Firstly, the definition of ‘low-level cases,’ and the process by which the courts will assess them are unclear. Additionally, there are concerns that people may make false allegations against their partners to avoid mediation altogether. In cases where abuse or coercive control are unknown factors, victim-survivors may suffer coercion into participating, thereby empowering their abuser. The Law Society has said that compulsory mediation could force the wrong people into the process, at the wrong time, and with the wrong attitude for it to be effective. Women’s Aid has called for urgent clarity understand how the Ministry of Justice will ensure that all domestic abuse survivors will be safe, and that they will thoroughly investigate allegations.
While the mandatory mediation proposal is a positive move towards supplying better outcomes for separating families, there are potential downfalls that we must consider. It is fundamental that any new legislation makes sure that these safeguards are firmly in place and that all parties feel secure and protected. The process of mandatory mediation must not be open to abuse.
The government consultation will run for 12 weeks, closing on 15 June 2023.
The UK Government’s proposal to make mediation mandatory for separating couples in low-level family court cases has the potential to improve outcomes for families and reduce the burden on the courts. However, there are still legitimate concerns about over what the precise definition of ‘low-level cases’ will be and how to best protect domestic abuse survivors. It is crucial that the government consultation takes these concerns into account and supplies clarity on how the mandatory mediation process will work in practice. Overall, if implemented effectively, mandatory mediation could be a positive step towards a more efficient and effective family justice system.
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