The Government has published its response to a consultation that it ran last year on resolving private family disputes earlier through family mediation.
The main proposal in the consultation was that mediation should be compulsory for most family disputes, with the hope that most disputes would then be resolved by agreement, rather than going to court.
But the Government has decided not to make mediation compulsory, following concerns that this could result in victims of domestic abuse having to attend mediation when it was not suitable or safe for them.
The Government has, however, indicated that it may still introduce compulsory mediation at a later time.
Meanwhile, the Government says it will bolster mediation, for example by improving training for mediators and continuing to support the Mediation Voucher Scheme, under which it provides £500 towards the costs of mediation, in eligible cases.
And whilst mediation may not be made compulsory, judges are being given more powers to encourage parties to mediate. The Law Society Gazette has reported that new court rules to be introduced in April will allow judges who believe a party has not taken mediation seriously enough to pause the proceedings and compel them to attend a mediation assessment meeting.
Returning to the consultation response, the Government has made two further significant announcements.
Firstly, it has said that it will pilot offering early legal advice to parents in disputes over arrangements for their children. The Government plans to launch the pilot this summer, in specific regions in England and Wales.
The Government plans to use the pilot to evaluate the impact of government-funded early legal advice, and assess the potential benefits, both in facilitating the earlier resolution of disputes and expediting court-based resolution where required.
The second announcement is the expansion of the ‘Pathfinder’ courts pilot. Pathfinder courts use a more investigative and less adversarial approach to dealing with disputes between parents over child arrangements, strengthening the voice of the child in proceedings, and increasing support to parties who need it.
Pathfinder courts are currently being piloted in Dorset and North Wales. The Government has announced that the pilot will be extended to South-East Wales and Birmingham in April and June 2024 respectively and then, subject to the findings of an evaluation and decisions at the next Spending Review, rolled out to all courts in England and Wales.
You can read the full consultation response here.
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