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Sandra Davis' Week: Mediation is not only solution to justice budget deficit

Date:5 NOV 2010

Sandra DavisThe impact parental separation has on children, particularly in relation to their emotional, educational and social development, depends very much on the extent of any conflict that exists between the adults involved. 

The traditional forum for the resolution of parental dispute, whether simple or intractable, has been the Courts.  This is despite the fact that these disputes are in many cases as much emotional as they are legal.

The consequence of the Government's comprehensive spending review is that the Public Sector faces stark choices in relation to the provision of services. This is particularly true in the case of Family Justice System. 

The budgetary constraints facing the Ministry of Justice will inevitably mean there are fewer Courts and less Judges available to adjudicate on disputes between parents.  And with the Government looking to save £350M on the legal aid budget, the recent victory by the Law Society against the Legal Services Commission may ultimately be entirely pyrrhic.

The Government's approach to the spiraling, unaffordable, cost of the Family Justice System appears to be to divert spending away from litigation and towards the cheaper option of mediation, its preferred alternative. Replacing one dispute resolution mechanism with another may work for some families but it certainly won't for all of them. 

I think a more imaginative approach is required.

Last year my firm called for the introduction of compulsory conflict clinics throughout the UK, funded by parents where they could afford it and Legal Aid where they couldn't.   Services of this type are commonplace, and successful, in Scandinavian countries, Australia and Canada.

By intervening at an early stage, parents can be directed to the most appropriate resource to resolve their disputes.  In some cases this will be mediation, in others litigation.  For many other families, though, a wholly therapeutic approach will offer the best prospect of successful long term co-parenting. 

Indeed, many seemingly intractable disputes currently litigated at vast expense in the Family Courts are resolved only following the introduction of Court ordered therapeutic intervention.

Offering a range of options at a much earlier stage, well before parents have become polarised, adversarial and entrenched, can only be in the best interests of their children and, at the same time, offer significant savings to the public purse.

I was therefore delighted to receive an email this week from Karen Woodall, director of the Centre for Separated Families containing details of the Centre's latest innovation, a "Family Separation Conflict Clinic". The clinic is particularly focused on supporting high conflict families where children have or are in the process of rejecting a parent.  The multi model approach used is based on the existing Canadian system.

The clinic is currently only available to separated couples in London and offers services on a private basis.  With some enlightened thinking on the part of the Government there is no reason why the clinic cannot be rolled out nationwide,  funded on a means tested basis and extended in its scope.

Sandra Davis is a Partner and Head of Family at Mishcon de Reya. She is a member of the firm's management board, a Fellow of the International Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, the author of International Child Abduction (Sweet & Maxwell, 1993) and a member of the Lord Chancellor's Child Abduction Panel. In 2009 she was shortlisted in the Citywealth Magic Circle Awards as a Leading Lawyer.

The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.