Government Voucher scheme boost to help thousands more families resolve disputes away from court

10 / 10 / 2021

Mediation is where a trained mediator will “sit” (which can in some circumstances be over the telephone) with both parties in a matter (or one at a time) to encourage them to discuss matters and/or negotiate in good faith to see if a resolution can be reached to some, if not all, of the issues in dispute between them.

This could for example, be in relation to how finances should be dealt with upon separation or what the arrangements should be for the children.

It is a neutral, non-confrontational and constructive arena for matters to be discussed.

Save for in quite limited circumstances (one such example being where there has been incidents of domestic abuse) the potential use of mediation is expected to be considered in most situations prior to making a Financial or Children Court application (and is a requisite for some Court applications).

The Courts highly encourage the use of mediation, and it can help to keep things amicable, involve less stress and can help, in the right cases, to reduce costs and timescales.

Mediation has come into the limelight again particularly this year since due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Courts have been even more stretched than usual due to a large backlog of cases.

In order to try to assist with this, in March 2021 the Government set up an initial time-limited family mediation voucher scheme, with £1million being invested.

The Government explain it ” … has set up the scheme in response to Covid-19 to support recovery in the family court and to encourage more people to consider mediation as a means of resolving their disputes, where appropriate. To support this, a financial contribution of up to £500 towards the costs of mediation will be provided if eligible”.    

This goes towards the cost of mediation as normally each mediation session is charged (save for where one of the parties is eligible for legal aid and is publicly funded).

It is however important to note that the £500 is not to be used for the Mediation Information and Assessment meeting – the meeting that takes place between the mediator and one party at a time to provide the party with information about mediation and to see if the case is suitable for mediation. Instead, it is for mediation sessions with the other person also in attendance (although both parties do not have to be face-to-face and can be in separate rooms if need be).

The types of cases that are eligible for the £500 mediation voucher are:

  • a dispute/application regarding a child; and
  • a dispute/application regarding family financial matters where the parties involved in a dispute/application relating to a child.

In August 2021, the Government reported that around 130 vouchers were being used every week and that “early data from the Family Mediation Council (FMC), who run the programme, has shown that up to three-quarters of participants have been helped to reach full or partial agreement on their dispute”.

This is great news for the people involved themselves – as well as for the Court system as it will have helped to reduce the number of people making an application to the Court.

Following the initial £1million Government investment in the scheme, which appears to have been a great success, in August 2021 the Government invested a further £800,000.

Courts Minister, Lord Wolfson QC at the time said:

“Hundreds of separating couples have already benefitted from this scheme – resolving their disputes without the need for an often lengthy, costly and emotionally taxing court process.

This additional funding will allow even more families to access these services, while helping to lessen the pressure on our family courts as we build back better from the pandemic.

Mediation is often a quicker and cheaper way of resolving disputes, which can spare families the stress of attending court and the impact this can have on children. It involves couples working through their differences – led by a trained and accredited mediator – to reach agreements they are both prepared to accept, such as how to split assets or arranging child contact times, rather than have a judge decide for them. They can then ask a court to consider their agreement and make it into a legally binding and enforceable court order.

In one case, the parents of a three year old boy were able to avoid days in court by using the scheme to agree on future arrangements. Both mum and dad were mistrusting of each other and sceptical about mediation. The scheme helped them to move forward and their child now has parents who can talk to one another about his best interests with healthier relationships all around”.

The additional funding is great news and will likely already be helping many more separated couples.

If an agreement is reached in mediation then we, at Wedlake Bell LLP, can assist with converting that into a legally binding and enforceable Court Order as referred to above by Lord Wolfson QC (it is important to note that agreements reached in family mediation are not legally binding and enforceable and therefore further steps should be taken following reaching an agreement).

We can of course also provide you with advice prior to mediation commencing.