The press has been full this week of stories about the forthcoming changes to the law under the Children and Families Bill which are said to compel couples to try mediation before Court in financial and children cases. The progress of the Bill through Parliament is expected to be completed later this year.
The Government issued a press release extolling the virtues of mediation, and the issue was swiftly reported by the Guardian. Unfortunately, the comments that accompany the article are a clear indication that the aim of the proposed changes is not clear to the public, and that there is general distrust of the “system” in general. The aim is not relationship counselling, to try to save the relationship, but to encourage couples to try to reach an agreement regarding their finances or children without recourse to the Courts. They are also not actually being compelled to mediate – by its very nature mediation will only work if both parties enter into it freely – but the person applying to Court is to attend a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAM) to ensure that they are aware of the alternatives to Court. There are many benefits of trying to settle a dispute out of Court; including minimising the impact on any children and allowing the couple more control over the outcome, as well as often reducing delay and overall costs. I explain a little more about mediation in my blog post What is Mediation? It is also important to bear in mind that there are other methods of resolving disputes outside of Court that do not receive as much press attention as mediation, such as Collaborative Law.
Of course, mediation isn’t suitable for everyone. The Bill allows for express exemptions from the need to attend a MIAM, including domestic violence and urgent Court applications, and there will no doubt be many more people who attend a meeting and conclude that they still want the matter to be dealt with by the Court, or where the other person refuses to attend with them.
With all this press attention you’d be forgiven for thinking that MIAM’s are new news. They are not – in fact they were introduced as far back as 2011. Under changes to the Family Procedure Rules at that time it became protocol to refer cases for a MIAM before issuing a Court application. These provisions came into effect on 6 April 2011. In practice, the referrals to MIAM’s are not always made and the Courts have been slow to insist on them. The inclusion of the requirement in the new Bill appears to be designed to give what is already meant to be good practice some teeth – with the wording stating that a MIAM must be attended (save in the exempted matters) and that provision can be made for the Court to refuse to deal with the application if a MIAM has not been attended.
Image by Manu_H under a Creative Commons licence.