According to a report on the BBC News website, dozens of divorce mediation centres are being forced to close as an unintended consequence of the cuts to the legal aid system which came into effect in April this year.
Since the government introduced the cuts to legal aid, mediators have seen a significant reduction in the number of couples using their services. According to the government, in May 2012 2,800 couples attended mediation session whilst the figure had dropped to just 1,200 in May this year.
For the majority of divorcing or separating couples, mediation is a far less stressful option than resorting to the courts. The BBC News article quotes Sinead Harris, a 23 year-old from Surrey who had split from her partner earlier this year and need help in arranging access to see her two year-old son: “Going through the courts would have meant more stress and more arguments which is not good for a child to be around.”
Mediation is widely recognised as being much less stressful than going to court, which raises the question of why there has been such a large reduction in the numbers of people making use of mediation services.
The BBC News article points out that since the changes to legal aid in April, most couples now no longer qualify for legal aid for divorce or separation. When couples were able to claim for legal aid, their lawyer would often refer them to a mediation service; however this is no longer happening.
Eileen Pereira of National Family Mediation is quoted in the BBC News article: “Because there’s no legal aid, people don’t look at mediation. Ours has become a hidden service.”
The government had hoped that changes to legal aid would encourage couples to seek mediation rather than resorting to the courts. The Family Justice Minister admitted to the BBC that the fall in demand for mediation was a ‘hiccup’ adding: “We’ve noticed the dip. We’re looking at how we can address the issue, and hope to help them promote more mediation more vigorously in the future. However most of the Â£25m that the government set aside as legal aid for use on mediation has not yet been spent.
Changes in the law which will come into effect from April next year will require couples separating through the courts to have at least tried mediation – something which the government hopes will boost the demand for mediation services.”