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Mediation Matters: MIAMs can be so much more than a box-ticking exercise

Date:22 APR 2015
Chief Executive, NFM
Today, 22 April 2015, is the first anniversary of Children and Families Act legislation that made it compulsory for separating couples seeking a court order to first attend a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAM).

It was a key plank of the government’s drive to encourage couples to use family mediation. So how is it doing?

It is of course possible to measure the number of MIAMs undertaken in a year, and to compare this figure with the same period the year before. On that score, our experience tells us it’s doing well. Figures vary in different geographical areas, but generally across England and Wales we’ve seen twice as many people taking up a MIAM since the law changed.

But because a MIAM ideally represents the first stage of an ongoing mediation process that lasts several weeks, it’s tricky to gauge the true effectiveness of the legislation. That can only really be seen in the numbers of successful conversions: first from MIAM to mediation-proper; and secondly from mediation through to full agreement between the parties. Anecdotal evidence is as telling as statistics.

On the positive side, very few people are coming to us for a MIAM having been turned away by a court because they went there and then discovered they needed a MIAM. So one way or another the message seems to be getting out there that if you’re separating you need to attend a MIAM before you can go to court.

But whilst it might sound flippant to suggest many couples are now seeing professional mediators as MIAM sausage-machine box-tickers, there’s an element of truth there.

That’s because most people calling us to enquire about a MIAM say they understand this is something they have to do before going to court.

Rarely do they have any inkling that family mediation could be a good thing in its own right; a positive way to settle future arrangements for their property, their finance and their children.

Through call-handling, and through our hard copy and online literature, our staff and mediators work hard to inform and educate people of mediation’s many benefits, explaining that it’s not just something that simply provides the tick in the box that lets you pass ‘go’ into the heat of a family court room.

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This is why we feel that effective education and information about the benefits of family mediation has to play an important part in future government policy. It’s not enough to legislate, if the very sound reasoning behind the legislation isn’t effectively conveyed to the people affected. And by ‘sound reasoning’, I don’t just mean the saving to the public purse that will come from fewer people clogging the courts. I mean the hugely positive role that mediation can have in improving the ability of families to shape their own futures for their children’s sakes.

MIAMs should be seen as the gateway of opportunity to these brighter futures for families in crisis, not a mechanical process that has to be done before you revert to courtroom acrimony.

A Parliamentary answer revealed last month that the MoJ had spent hundreds of thousands of public money on a profile-raising campaign for family mediation which took place between January and March 2015. We still await the full evaluation though the early indications suggested to us that it could well prove to be not only an expensive exercise, but a relatively fruitless one too.

Enquiries to our national telephone helpline have rocketed since April 2014. So much so that it’s been a real challenge to take every call made and to help every family that gets in touch. That’s because whereas pre-LASPO our calls were essentially an appointment-booking process, we now spend an average of 15 minutes per call, advising people who are at sea and confused about how they should manage their separation. A fraction of that MoJ campaign money could have comfortably funded two additional specialist staff for our helpline, ensuring families no longer miss the help because they happen to call when everyone else was on the phone.

There’s no sign of a let-up in the increase in enquiries from families in crisis. So there’s a major opportunity now to help influence the next steps those families take.

We have been the first to acknowledge a number of positive government measures to encourage people to go to mediation. But whatever the colour of the next government, it has a lot more to do to truly transform the culture of the management of divorce. We look forward to playing our part after May 7th.

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