New figures released by the government show that referrals to family mediation have dropped sharply following the legal aid cuts in April this year. Referrals fell nationally by an average of 27% for the three months from April to June 2013 compared with the same period for 2012.

One explanation for the sharp fall is that the loss of legal aid in the majority of family cases is meaning that many people are not taking legal advice and therefore not being made aware of the various alternatives to court. Instead they are taking matters straight to court and, in many cases, losing out on what can be a more cost-effective and amicable way of resolving disputes. Legal aid is still available for mediation and many people are not aware of this.

The family courts are becoming increasingly congested and should really be a last resort in most family disputes. Mediation can be a flexible, speedy and cost effective alternative. It is a confidential process that enables both parties to explain and then discuss what their needs and concerns are to each other in the presence of an independent third party – the mediator – so that they reach an agreement between themselves. Mediation empowers the parties to control the process, the issues they would like to discuss, and the outcome. It can also be less stressful, particularly for any children involved, and in the long run, can often be cheaper than going to court.At present, before applying to court a person must prove that they have considered mediation first. They can do this by:

  • showing they are exempt from having to consider mediation, for example, if domestic violence is involved; or
  • proving to the judge that they have been to a ‘mediation information and assessment meeting’ with a family mediator but that mediation is not suitable for them.The Children & Families Bill which is progressing through Parliament seeks to make this a legal requirement in early 2014.