There are times over the last 2 and a half years when I wonder what it must have been like to be in office during a period of expanding public expenditure. If “to govern is to choose” then to govern in times of austerity is to make hard choices. There have been no soft options open to Ministers as we try to shape our justice system to the economic realities of our times.
That does not mean that we are incapable of achieving improvements in the way we do things so that what we do is more efficient, more focussed and more cost effective.
Indeed, it can be said that hard times can be the spur to doing things better. This is certainly true in the field of Family Justice. On the back of the Family Justice Review, this government is doing much to modernise and improve the system for the benefit of families and children in particular.
A key part of the wider package we are bringing forward is shifting the emphasis away from litigation to other forms of dispute resolution and mediation in particular. The Coalition government has gone to great lengths to support, promote and finance family mediation. Crucially we have kept public funding for mediation to meet the anticipated demand for it in the family sphere in the post Legal Aid, Sentencing And Punishment Of Offenders (LASPO) and Family Justice Review world.
We estimate than an extra £10 million of public funding will go into mediation in 2013-2014, bringing the total funding available for family mediation to £25 million for that year, a figure which is not capped.
Legal aid will also remain available for cases where litigation is the right course: domestic violence cases, and forced marriage injunctions, as well as children cases where there is evidence of domestic violence.
It is important that those who meet the criteria for public funding, or indeed those with means who may be considering privately funded litigation, come to see family mediation as something more than a viable alternative to going to court. I hope they would come to see it as the default way to resolve disputes. While the government can and will continue to push for such a change, we cannot do so alone. We share that responsibility with all legal professionals and mediators.
My message to you as practitioners and supervisors is simple: your time is now.
You now have a once in a generation opportunity to raise the profile of your profession, as a single and united profession, and to lead the way in promoting out of court solutions for the benefit of families and particularly for children.
Of course, we face difficult times economically. This government has had to make tough decisions about public funding, including reducing the scope of legal aid in family law, but my message to you today about innovating and promoting mediation is not about the money. I ask you, as a profession, to embrace the opportunities which arise out of change, to promote and deliver your services. Because mediation is the right choice for many families.
You know as well as anyone that separation, the breaking up of a family, is awful for everyone concerned. One side could have been thinking about it for a long time and have already come to terms with the end of the relationship. For the other, it may be a complete surprise. In their anger and hurt their focus could well be directed towards making the other person pay, so their first port of call is a lawyer.
I don’t doubt that it will be difficult to change the current mind-set where people automatically resort to the courts to solve their disputes post separation and make decisions for them about the arrangements for their children or finances. But I believe, with encouragement, it can be done over time.
As mediators, you are in a unique position to bring about this culture change. It is you who can help separating couples to a new collaborative way of maintaining a relationship post separation. Most importantly, family mediators will play a pivotal role in both parents having a relationship with their children, bearing in mind the need for safeguards and to protect the welfare of the child.
Of course, the courts have a vital function in ensuring that the most intractable cases can be resolved and in protecting the most vulnerable, both adults and children. But in many cases they should not be the first resort.
I am looking to you, the family mediation profession, to bring family mediation into the mainstream as the first choice for families to help them make their arrangements post separation - and not just because they have to. Regardless of your background, mediation, the law, or social work, you can bring this about.
Partnership working is a key part of this process. The changing landscape is encouraging practitioners to look at different ways of delivering their services. Many have already grasped this opportunity: they’re linking up with law firms, agreeing mutually beneficial referral routes and providing fixed price packages for family mediation and legal support. If you do not already know and work with your local family law firms, the time is ripe to build those bridges.
Of course, at the same time, we need to improve the standing of the family mediation community. My department is working very closely with the Family Mediation Council (FMC) and backing it in its response to the recommendations of the McEldowney Review, of which we are very supportive.
Good progress is being made to establish a national register of family mediators and PPCs (Professional Practice Consultants), both the FMC and the public need to know what services are out there and what skills are available.
To help with this I am very pleased to announce that we have been able to provide funding towards the development of the database. I hope this provides a demonstration of our support for Sarah Lloyd and the FMC.
Other highlights of the McEldowney Review include the creation of a single practice accreditation standard and procedure, and routine re-accreditation. Having one route to a practice certificate will simplify procedures for the profession as well as making it easier for the public to understand what they should be looking for in a family mediator. They will be able to recognise ‘the kite mark’ of a good mediator on a level with the standard for publicly funded mediation.
The FMC is also working with professional advisers on auditing the work of the 6 Member Organisations including their training programmes.
Children and Families Bill
I expect you will all be aware that the Children and Families Bill is now going through Parliament and currently in Committee in the Commons. All being well, we anticipate that it will get Royal Assent early next year and compulsory MIAMs (Mediation Information and Assessment Meetings) will come in from April 2014.
We will do our part to raise the profile of family mediation and other alternatives to court action. me being here today is part of a family mediation awareness programme to ensure as many people as possible get to know about family mediation.
We have also worked very closely with the Department for Work and Pensions on the production of the Sorting Out Separation web app.
There have been some teething problems, as with all IT, but I am confident that the united effort across government has led to improved content and we will continue to be review as we learn more from users’ feedback.
Now is your time to embrace the opportunities presented to you.
I do not fool myself that mediation is either a cure-all or a soft-option in dealing with the often emotional and traumatic stresses involved in family law. But the circumstances have come together which give family mediation the chance to show its value, to show its worth. I urge the profession to seize this moment to ensure that mediation achieves the respect and position it merits in the structure of family law.
*[PPC] Professional Practice Consultant
*[FMC]: Family Mediation Council
*[MIAMs] Mediation Information and Assessment Meetings