A month on from April 6 and I’m sure you all felt the disturbance in The Force as the new Family Procedure Rules came into effect. No? These are the guidelines that it is hoped will see thousands more divorcing couples trying the mediation route to reach a settlement rather than simply assuming they will see each other in court to thrash out the details of their split.
Still a bit vague? You won’t be the only one. There is a suggestion that, though well intentioned, the changes may have been rushed through somewhat.
Under the upgrade, couples wanting to divorce must first attend a meeting to learn about mediation in the hope they can reach a settlement amicably, before either can make an application to court. It is hoped this will make significant savings in court time. It comes on the back of proposals to cut the number of people eligible for legal aid in divorce cases. Looking at the wider remit of the Family Procedure Rules, I have previously talked about the positive effects of some of the changes in language being brought in to family law to help clients understand more clearly what is going on.
However, it is Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) – most commonly mediation – that we keep coming back to. We are simply not ready for it yet. There are not going to be enough good mediators for a start and there is still some confusion around what level a “trained mediator” will have to meet to be considered as such.
I would echo the comments made by Resolution, that things have moved too quickly and that it should not just be mediation we are focusing on but all ADR options. We have even heard that judges are not going to receive their full training on the changes until the end of this month!
Any major changes to the law which affect families, especially children, need to be thoroughly thought through, fully and clearly communicated, and handled delicately. Potentially thousands of people each year will be affected by even minor tweaks. These will affect them at, probably, a very emotional time in their lives. Rushing something in is not where we should be. I have complained previously at the slow timetable for the Family Justice Review. I still think that is going to the other extreme but at least when (if) any new policies do arrive, we will all know what they are and how they will work. If we lawyers are still unclear on the detail and unconvinced on the delivery of more mediation, and judges have yet to be trained in the new rules, how do we expect this to be beneficial to the public?