- move aims to protect children from the damaging impact of bitter courtroom battles
- millions in further financial support to families as voucher scheme extended
Thousands of children could be protected from witnessing their parents thrash out family disputes through the courts, following plans to mandate mediation for separating families announced today (23 March 2023).
In a major shake-up to the family justice system, proposals will see mediation become mandatory in all suitable low-level family court cases excluding those which include allegations or a history of domestic violence. This will mean separating couples have to attempt to agree their child custody and financial arrangements through a qualified mediator with court action being a last resort.
It is expected the move could help up to 19,000 separating families resolve their issues away from the courtroom, while also reducing backlogs, easing pressures on the family courts and ensuring the justice system can focus on the families it most needs to protect.
In the meantime, the government’s Family Mediation Voucher Scheme will be extended until April 2025 backed by an additional £15 million in funding. The scheme provides separating couples with vouchers worth up to £500 to help them solve disputes through mediation and has so far supported over 15,300 families.
Making mediation compulsory will allow the family courts to better prioritise and provide protection for the most serious cases with safeguarding concerns where it is not an option, such as domestic abuse and child safety. It is estimated that 36,000 vulnerable families each year will benefit from faster hearings and quicker resolutions as a result.
Deputy Prime Minister, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice Dominic Raab MP said:
When parents drag out their separation through lengthy and combative courtroom battles it impacts on their children’s school work, mental health and quality of life.
Our plans will divert thousands of time-consuming family disputes away from the courts – to protect children and ensure the most urgent cases involving domestic abuse survivors are heard by a court as quickly as possible.
The overhaul could also introduce a new power for judges to order parents to make a reasonable attempt to mediate with possible financial penalties if they act unreasonably and harm a child’s wellbeing by prolonging court proceedings.
Research has shown parental conflict can be exacerbated by lengthy and acrimonious court proceedings, which can lead to higher rates of anxiety and depression, anti-social behaviour and reduced academic performance among children.
Mediation is a process in which couples work through their differences with a trained and accredited mediator to reach agreements such as how to split assets or arrange child contact times, rather than have a judge decide for them.
The voucher scheme has highlighted the benefit it can have on separating couples and their children. An analysis of the first 7,200 users of the scheme shows 69% of participants have reached whole or partial agreements away from court.
Currently administered by the Family Mediation Council, extending funding takes the total package of support provided by the government through the scheme to £23.6 million.
Estimates suggest 1 in 4 families who have child arrangements settled by judges have been to court before in the past 3 years. Increased use of mediation should lead to more agreeable resolutions for families, saving taxpayer money in the long term.
In turn, mediation provides a cheaper and more cost-effective solution for families, sparing them from expensive legal bills.
Chair of the Family Mediation Council, John Taylor, said:
Family mediation can play a really positive role in producing better outcomes for separating families, and in reducing the burden on courts. This consultation shows that Ministers recognise its value in helping separating couples make parenting and financial arrangements without the stress and delays involved in going to court.
It builds on the government’s successful £500 voucher scheme, which is encouraging separating couples to consider family mediation to resolve their disputes. The next few weeks will help shine further light on a process that has the potential to help many thousands more shape the futures of all their family members.
To better support children the proposals would extend the use of co-parenting programmes across the country by making them compulsory before court. Currently families are often referred to these programmes by judges during court proceedings.
These courses encourage parents to take steps for themselves and develop agreements without court intervention, making sure parents are putting their child’s needs first when separating. A pilot study found that around 78% of parents who attend both co-parenting programmes and mediation sessions took steps to withdraw their court cases.
Chief Executive of the Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service (Cafcass), Jacky Tiotto, said:
Cafcass strongly welcomes the focus on supporting more parents to agree how they will care for their children and spend time together without the need to make an application to the family court when they are separating.
We work with in excess of 145,000 children every year and we see the harm to which children are exposed in long adversarial court proceedings. Programmes that encourage parents to consider together what is safe and in the best interests of their children help to keep the focus on what children want and need as they grow up.
The proposals will be subject to a government consultation which will run for 12 weeks from today, closing on 15 June 2023.
- The proposals within the consultation will apply to England and Wales. The proposals regarding parenting programmes may touch on competence devolved to Wales as these programmes are delivered in Wales by the Welsh children and advisory court support service (Cafcass Cymru), which is a devolved matter.
- Mandatory mediation and cost orders on families to make a reasonable attempt mediate will only apply in appropriate cases such as those without domestic abuse allegations, urgency, or certain child protection circumstances.
- Co-parenting programmes will continue to be supported by Cafcass & Cafcass Cymru (Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service), a statutory body who represent children in family court cases in England and Wales by offering them advice and support throughout court proceedings.
- The consultation will state the intention to fully fund the cost of mediation in relation to child arrangement cases and seek views on whether finance remedy cases, such as divorce, should be funded under legal aid thresholds.