With the dawn of ‘no fault’ divorce almost upon us there is a sense of post-election frivolity reverberating throughout the sector, with the Government proudly patting itself on the back for delivering on the most significant shake up of family law in almost five decades.
To a certain extent, one could argue rightly so.
Indeed, National Family Mediation was one of the many organisations campaigning for change to what is widely accepted to be a stale and outdated area of law, with already heartbroken families kickstarting divorce proceedings by blaming their former spouse for the irretrievable breakdown of the relationship.
And so let me start this article by stressing that I, and my mediation colleagues, are most certainly in favour of the reforms which will aid the ability to separate on a less acrimonious footing, regardless of who has done what and to whom.
However, as the April 6th deadline rapidly approaches it feels prudent to caution that this major legislative change is not, in isolation, the end to all of our problems.
Does it simplify the law, yes. Does the online portal make the process quicker, more affordable and more accessible, yes. Does ‘no fault’ divorce automatically solve all of the subsequent disputes, conflicts and concerns faced by couples who are keen to dissolve their nuptials. Heck no!
If we don’t start to move the conversation on, we run the very real risk of misleading the general public into believing that all of their marital woes can be over at the click of a button.
Instead, we need to be promoting and preparing people for what comes next, including the division of assets, agreeing where the kids will live and on what days, agreeing who will keep the family home and what will happen to Bruno the family dog. If we don’t, Ministers might find that this popular legislation has backfired, with overflowing courts unable to cope and parties to the divorce being left exposed and families left financially vulnerable.
Families also need more reassurance that there are organisations and mechanisms available to support them with this stage of proceedings which, let’s face it, is often far more fraught and emotionally tumultuous than the initial petition.
First and foremost, legal aid. When LASPO hit there was a big ballyhoo about lawyers not being funded from the public purse, but the Government neglected to mention the fact legal aid is still available for mediation. An omission that we know indisputably impacts the number of people engaging with mediation even now, seven years on, and one that is totally at odds with the current emphasis on keeping conflict away from the courts wherever possible.
Why is there such little emphasis on this when the latest Family Mediation Council survey shows that when both clients attend a MIAM meeting 73% go on to mediate, and of those who do 77% go on to reach full or partial agreement?
Secondly, the Government Mediation Voucher Scheme. Yes, it has really made mediation far more accessible and affordable to many, yet despite its popularity, take-up and success it continues to be extended on a piecemeal basis, with no real commitment to a permanent extension.
In fact, while the recent funding boost saw the schemes coffers topped up by a further £1.3million, that money is right on track to run out just in time for April 6th, the official ‘launch date’ of ‘no-fault’, and perfectly timed with what family lawyers predict will be an avalanche of petitions.
As a result, publicity around it remains somewhat limited, certainly from a consumer perspective. Most of the couples referred to us come via our referral network, as opposed to directly.
If we are serious about meaningful change that better meets the needs (and wants) of families crying out for a more amicable break up, alleviates the pressure currently faced by the family courts, and truly keeps the financial and emotional cost of divorce to a minimum, we need to do more than simply megaphoning the introduction of no fault.
Instead, with only a month to go it’s time to talk about what else we can do to educate people about what services and what funding is available to manage what comes after the petitioner presses send, and the divorce process wheels are officially in motion.