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Mediation hit by legal aid cuts

  • rubytuesday
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30 Sep 13 #408881 by rubytuesday
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From today''s Guardian

Government attempts to promote mediation as an alternative to expensive courtroom divorce and custody battles are failing, according to figures obtained through freedom of information requests.

Statistics compiled by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) show that the number of couples attending out-of-court sessions to resolve family disputes since cuts to legal aid were introduced in April have plummeted by 47%.

Mediators have warned that some services have already closed and the industry is being put at risk following cuts to legal aid introduced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which came into force in April.

Among the justifications deployed by ministers for cutting legal aid for family law cases were that it would reduce pressure on the courts, lessen confrontation between separating couples and save the taxpayer money.

But mediation experts warn that the decision to remove legal aid for family cases – unless they involve allegations of domestic violence or child abuse – has resulted in warring partners no longer being directed by solicitors towards accredited mediators.

The MoJ figures, obtained through freedom of information requests by family mediator Marc Lopatin, the founder of Lawyer-Supported Mediation, show steep declines in the numbers in mediation and starting new sessions. Between April and June last year, 7,381 couples attended mediation information and assessment meetings in England and Wales. Over the same three months in 2013, the numbers fell to 3,854 – a drop of 47%.

The number of couples starting family mediation sessions fell from 3,564 to 2,623 over the same period – a decline of 26%.

He said the sharp falls have led to mediation services closing down or being forced to make staff redundant. "Lawyers need to be gatekeepers and earn a meaningful fee from supporting clients through mediation," he said.

"The MoJ''s hopes that family mediation would boom once legal aid lawyers were frozen out of the picture, are being dashed. It''s a pity that the MoJ see this as either mediator or lawyer." Both should work together, he urged. "There''s still legal aid for mediation and the government has made an extra £10m available but there are no referrals being made."

Lawyers are paid a fee of £150 for supporting a client into mediation but because separating couples are told legal aid for family law cases is no longer available most go straight to court as litigants in person – pursuing their claims through the family division without legal support or advice.

The consequence, according to the government''s Child and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass), has been a 27% increase since April this year in private cases flooding into the family courts system leading to delays. The law is due to change again next year when any court cases will have to consider mediation as an alternative.

In the meantime, the mediation industry is suffering. Rachel Duke, head of family law at the London solicitors Ronald Fletcher Baker, said: "Since 1 April we have had far fewer inquiries from clients who would previously have been eligible for legal aid.

"They are not self-referring to mediation services. They are issuing applications in court in person. The [family] courts are consequently becoming more congested."

Eileen Pereira, director of the Surrey Family and Mediation Services, part of the National Family Mediation network, said: "What the government didn''t see was that lawyers acted as gatekeepers. Our service has seen a 60% drop in clients. The government is at risk of losing a huge amount of experts. Some mediation services have closed."

The justice minister, Lord McNally, said: "Mediation can be quicker, cheaper and produces better results than stressful family court battles – and we are committed to helping more separating couples use the excellent services available.

"Millions of pounds of legal aid is still available to cover the cost of mediation and we are changing the law so that in future anyone considering court action will be legally obliged to attend a mediation information meeting and consider whether this would be a better approach.

"Last year, just over 17,000 people successfully used legal aid-funded mediation to settle family issues and we are working hard with mediation providers and advice services to ensure more people are advised about alternatives to court."


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