An estimated two thirds of divorce cases currently within the family courts involve one party who is does not have the representation of a lawyer. The newly appointed chair of Resolution Jo Edwards has expressed concerned that cuts to legal aid and overcrowded public courts have resulted in increasing numbers of couples finding themselves without legal support.
“People are just giving up and not seeing their children because they don’t know how to go about it,” Edwards commented. With the courts stretched to their limit, the process is becoming ever more protracted as separating couples attempt to work out settlements and custody issues without the experience necessary to do so.
“People who represent themselves are not negotiating,” Edwards commented, “They need a lot of time and help. The judges are having to draft orders which is normally done by the parties. I have heard of cases being listed eight months in advance.”
Justice minister Simon Hughes defended the situation by highlighting the fact that approximately half of private cases in 2012 involved self-representation: “There have always been a significant number of people representing themselves in court […] and we provide information and guidance to help them. Judges have expertise in supporting them, for example by explaining procedures and what is expected.” However, Resolution raised further concerns over the way the media portrays millionaire and celebrity divorce cases, misguiding ordinary couples believing that they can achieve the same result without help.
Mandatory MIAMs (mediation, information and assessment meetings) came into effect from April this year, with the aim of encouraging more people to choose mediation as an alternative to court divorce. Simon Hughes remains confident that this will result in a more effective system for separating couples: “We are committed to making sure that more people make use of mediation rather than go through the confrontational and stressful experience of going to court. Millions of pounds of legal aid remains available for family mediation and for legal advice to support family mediation.”
Resolution believes that further steps are required, and that legal aid should cover an initial meeting with a solicitor in order to provide divorcing couples with a clear outline of the legal options available to them, including out-of-court alternatives like mediation and arbitration.
Mediation offers a flexible and effective method of separation, especially for couples with children, and often works out cheaper and faster since the process is more straightforward than a court divorce. Based on cooperation and negotiation rather than adversarial tactics, mediation encourages both parties to come to a mutual agreement according to the best interests of everyone involved. A mediator-solicitor is there to guide couples through the process of separation, avoiding over-crowded courts and providing the legal advice that is essential to negotiate the complex personal issues of a divorce case.
Above all, mediation should allow parents to reach a positive decision that will benefit their family in the future. “Disputes over children are sometimes unavoidable,” explained Frances Lindsay, a Resolution-trained mediator from the Thames Valley, “When I mediate, one of the first things I say to my clients is: ‘Before you say or do anything, stop for a minute and consider what your children would think if they were watching you.'”
For help and information on mediation, MIAMs, and alternatives to court divorce, get in touch with Frances Lindsay & Co, offering fixed-fee legal services across Buckinghamshire and Berkshire.
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