It is no wonder that access to family law is in such a muddle at the moment.

Legal Aid was withdrawn on 1st April 2013 from 250,000 per year Private Client Family Law cases a year. That is a lot of people and a lot of people who are left floundering, wondering what they can do.

That group of 250,000 cases represents 500,000 people, if you think that each case involves two people and that is ignoring their children who are affected.

There has been a lot of noise about the loss of access to Legal Aid for family cases and the loss of access to funds to pursue cases through the Courts. There has not been a lot of noise about alternative dispute resolution in family cases.

That is where some of the money saved by the withdrawal of Legal Aid is going. £10,000,000 has been added to the existing Legal Aid mediation budget. Mediation is there to help couples who are separating finding their own solution to their own issues, with the assistance of a mediator. The difference is that mediation does not involve advising people and going to Court. Mediation involves mediating people and helping them find their own solutions to their own problems, in a quicker, cheaper way and in a way that produces better outcomes that people are willing to stick with. It is an excellent service.

The trouble is, people do not know about it. Not enough people have been to mediation and not enough people are encouraged to go to mediation when they are looking for help following a family breakdown.

Finding out about mediation, generally speaking, does not cost a lot of money. A Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting is free to anybody who is financially eligible for Legal Aid, and frequently not charged to anybody who is not. Therefore it usually costs you nothing to find out about mediation.

What is more, in mediation, if you are one of those people who wanted Legal Aid for advice from a lawyer, you can get information within the mediation process. Moreover you get Legal Aid for mediation, if you are financially eligible. If you are in mediation, then you can get Help With Mediation legal advice from a lawyer. That is the route to getting the legal advice that you seek in order to establish whether the solutions you have reached in mediation can be transformed into more formal Court Orders without costing you money or taking you beyond your own personal skill set.

Other alternative dispute resolution formats are:

  • Arbitration
  • Collaboration
  • Constructive negotiation

but none of those attract the same financial assistance that the Government has put in place, but failed to sell, regarding Mediation Information and Assessment Meetings and Help With Mediation which can be supported by Legal Aid.

All that needs to happen is that separating couples need to stop thinking that their natural recourse is to have a battle in Court, and start thinking that they need to work things out together in a sensible way, fully informed, with a focus on children’s needs.

John Brownrigg, Head of Family Law & Mediation of Stone King LLP, 13 Queen Square, Bath – author of “Divorce – Making It Work Better”.