Welcoming Caroline Dinenage as the new Minister responsible for family mediation, it’s notable what a wide portfolio she has. From Equalities to Women; from Mental Health to Mediation, this is a Parliamentary Under Secretary with wide ranging responsibilities. There is no reason to doubt her ability to quickly master all the briefs, and we look forward to meeting and working closely with her in the months ahead.
From a family mediator’s perspective, she has a hard act to follow. I want to use this opportunity to pay tribute to outgoing Family Justice Minister, Simon Hughes, for the immense effort he put into the role in the 18 months or so he occupied it. He went above-and-beyond in championing the role of family mediation, and his personal commitment to the cause was evident not just from his words in meetings but more importantly from his deeds in Government.
So, with a new Government in place, the Queen’s Speech now delivered and an emergency budget looming in July, what are the hopes and fears of the non-profit family mediation sector for the next five years?
Most important of all, the push to encourage separating families towards mediation from the most senior levels in Government must continue. National Family Mediation’s 80 per cent success rate, praised by Lord Neuberger last month, demonstrates it is good for families. But it is good for the public purse, too.
The cost of the ‘traditional’ divorce courtroom route is enormous, to individuals but also to the state. Family breakdown costs the economy an estimated £46 billion per year (Relationships Foundation, 2014). And individual family court cases cost the taxpayer £1,618 per day in staff costs. (HMCTS Annual report, 2012).
Mediation is one area where, with bold leadership driving culture change, the drive for austerity can actually be combined with the public good.
There has been lots of chatter in conferences, blogs and social media about the future of legal aid. With a Government commitment to slash billions in public spending, nobody I know seriously expects the legal aid budget to emerge from this Parliament unscathed.
But in view of the strategic aim of encouraging separating families to use mediation, it would be illogical to cut the current modest public funding that’s provided for legally aided family mediation.
It is also too early to judge the value and impact of the ‘single free mediation’ session introduced by Simon Hughes to allow the ex of a legally-aided person to also have a publicly funded mediation session free of charge.
You don’t need to be a student of politics and government to know that recent history is littered with the abandonment of schemes, projects and initiatives which were ditched before they had chance to prove their worth. At the very least we would hope the new Government is open-minded enough to give this initiative time to prove its worth and only make a change if it doesn’t make a demonstrable impact.
And what do we hope to avoid? In a time of austerity, I think we can do without the scattergun splurging of hundreds of thousands of public money on ‘profile-raising’ campaigns for mediation, the like of which took place earlier this year. Shrewd investment of much smaller sums, targeted to the right places, will be far more effective. So I look forward to the new Minister bringing to the table an open mind and applying it as she further strengthens her understanding of the challenges facing family law in general, and mediation specifically. The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.