This month saw the low-key government launch of a £1 million drive to improve the take-up of family mediation for separating families with children.
Vouchers are being made available to cover up to £500 of a separating family’s mediation bill. Those who are eligible for legal aid are expected to continue to use that avenue of funding for their mediation. But in cases where only one of the two adults involved is legal aid-eligible, the voucher can be used to fund the other. The limit of £500 applies per case, not per party.
For many years we’ve heard a succession of government Ministers use warm supportive words about family mediation being a better alternative to the lawyer-court room route for separating families. With the voucher scheme the government is now putting some money where its mouth has been, which has to be warmly welcomed.
The aim is clearly to divert people from courts, whose post-LASPO Act logjams have been multiplied hugely by the impact of the pandemic. Writing a £1 million cheque for these vouchers can only help towards meeting this aim.
It’s a short-term measure since, by definition, around 2,000 families will benefit.
And significantly the voucher will not cover the cost of the initial MIAM meeting. That is of course the first stage at which most separating couples first learn about the benefits of mediation. So, on the face of it, it’s only those who are perhaps already at least ‘semi-committed’ to mediation that will benefit.
One of the purposes of the scheme is to generate much-needed data for the Ministry of Justice about mediation clients, including knowing whether the voucher genuinely acts as a carrot to attract people away from court and into mediation. The outcomes of mediation and the next steps taken after mediation by the 2,000 or so beneficiary families will also be analysed.
I hope and trust this information will then be used to determine and shape future initiatives aimed at persuading people of the many merits of family mediation.
Some of us recall how six years ago the government of the day took a slightly different tack, with a funded promotional campaign. Spending about a third of what is dedicated to the vouchers, the campaign saw the creation of videos and ads, aimed at informing people about family mediation’s benefits.
That campaign itself was short-lived, and the very nature of family separation is such that unless promotional work is continual and ongoing, you are only ever going to capture those undergoing a family crisis at that particular moment in time.
I’ve no doubt that mediation professionals across the country will embrace the voucher initiative.
And we will keenly await the outcome of the MoJ number-crunching and, crucially, what measures might follow in the scheme’s wake.