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Mediation for family disputes falls 45 per cent


Legal aid lawyers call on government to rethink benefit cutsLegal aid lawyers call on government to rethink benefit cuts.

Many of the government’s cuts to benefits only came into full effect in April 2013, so the full consequences are yet to be understood.

What can be seen, however, are the results of initial changes in access to and the availability of services, mostly to the detriment of women and children, something the charity sector has been warning about for several years.

Recent research by legal aid lawyers has found a dramatic decrease in the numbers of people accessing mediation as a solution to family disputes, something that many say is attributable to cuts to legal aid.

Prior to April 2013, legal aid lawyers were required to refer clients to a mediator before being able to access further public funds, and mediation is shown to be extraordinarily effective, with more than two-thirds of those using it reaching agreement.

The government says that it is extremely supportive of mediation as a solution to family disputes, which is why the new Children and Families Bill currently before Parliament includes the requirement that anyone who wants to apply for a court order relating to children or finances must first attend a mediation information and assessment meeting.

Exemptions in the case of suspected domestic violence will be allowed.

Critics of the legislation say that a single assessment meeting is unlikely to generate any meaningful increase in the numbers of people reaching successfully-mediated solutions.

Additionally, those in favour of legal aid point to the high numbers of referrals needed to generate substantial numbers of fully completed mediation processes, as well as the potential for future problems if mediation participants are forced to make decisions without formal legal advice.

Figures received by through Freedom of Information requests to the Ministry of Justice show that in October 2013, there were 707 mediation starts as compared to 1281 in October 2012.

It appears that as the amount of available support decreases, more and more couples may be trying to solve their disagreements without any professional help, and that includes representing themselves in court.

With mediators demanding stronger measures to compel more people to use mediation, and family lawyers advocating some type of return to legal aid, it is clear that none of the parties in the sector are happy, least of all the families attempting to come to some sort of workable, affordable solution.

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