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Family Law

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Court of Protection Practice and Procedure Conference 2016

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16 NOV 2015

Mediation Matters: Family hubs can help children and provide value for taxpayers

Jane  Robey

Chief Executive, NFM


Mediation Matters: Family hubs can help children and provide value for taxpayers
With the first Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) of the current government looming later this month, I think it's fair to say that expectations in the family law sector are low. With government departments having been asked to prepare projected budget cuts of 25 and 40 per cent, nobody expects a radical rejuvenation of of legal aid.

And in the sphere of family mediation we know that, whilst the government appears to want people to pursue mediation where possible, rather than further clogging blocked family courts, there will be no more money for its promotion and marketing to supplement the hundreds of thousands of pounds spent on a campaign early in 2015. Whilst the previous Family Justice Minister, Simon Hughes, was proactive with his support, there's little sign of his successor, Caroline Dinenage, raising any trumpets for the profession.

The silence of ministers strongly suggests we won't be seeing any more 'help-ups' in the vein of the 'free single mediation sessions' brought in by the previous government.

We know, too, that there will be no more government money for the regulation of family mediators either, despite the introduction of a new accreditation scheme that is set to affect each and every professional family mediator across England and Wales. Money is short, as we know.

So, anyone interested in family mediation who's waiting for good news from the CSR will be disappointed - and it comes on top of the MoJ's latest figures on legally aided mediation showing no growth, with take-up almost literally standing still in the most recent quarter.

National Family Mediation's non-profit mediators have been here before, in the wake of the disastrous LASPO legislation of 2013. They stoically accept that future growth in family mediation has to come from mediators themselves, applying our own expert professional practice.

But that's not to say we have no aspirations for cost-effective government action to help families in crises. We do.

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Bearing in mind the maxim that you have to spend some to make some, it's high time the government looked seriously at developing the 'family hub' model, proposed by the Centre for Social Justice.

The concept follows the successful implementation of Sure Start Children's Centres. They would be community-based locations, providing access to families to a range of vital services and could prove particularly effective in areas of high deprivation where a degree of stability is needed in families and across communities.

If the human need isn't evident, look at some figures. Family breakdown costs the economy and the taxpayer an estimated £46 billion per year. Individual family court cases cost the taxpayer £1,618 per day in staff costs. It is self-evident that current approaches to managing family breakdown are not effective for the children and parents affected - or for taxpayers.

Family hubs would become a one-stop place for a parent to get information about all the issues that affect their family's well-being, and direct access to many of them. From ante- and post-natal services, through to assistance with childcare, employment, financial advice, relationship support and, key for my profession, the vital support that's needed when a family breaks down.

The need for community-based advice of this type is clear. The economic downturn of recent years, combined with the squeeze on legal aid eligibility has led to a massive increase in demand for advice from separating families who don't know which way to turn and who lack the resources to research and investigate all their options.

There is no mistaking that government intervention and investment can help tackle the root causes of poverty, supporting disadvantaged communities; but that is not likely to happen in the short term. 

The vision of our politicians rarely extends further than the next election. It's usually highly influenced by perceived 'value for money'. That's one reason why it would be foolish to expect a quick government acceptance of family hubs as a solution.

It took a generation for the positive impacts of Sure Start to be seen and widely accepted, and so the wisdom of the family hub approach would require patience. Getting evidence of their successful outcomes would truly be a long-term game. But, first of all, ministers need to pick up the ball and start playing.
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