From April 6 2011, most divorcing couples will be referred to mediation for a compulsory assessment before they are allowed to use the courts.
The government believes that this will be a quicker, cheaper and more amicable alternative. However, in light of imminent legal aid cuts, if the assessment doesn’t result in agreement, couples could then have to pay their own legal costs.
The measures will not affect domestic violence or child protection cases, which will still have priority in court, but will affect other children issues and financial disputes.
The radical reform is said to encourage people to take advantage of appropriate sources of help and reduce the stress of the ‘divorce battle’.
Of course it is always better for couples to work together to resolve issues, and for years lawyers have used mediation, and other dispute resolution methods to achieve the best outcome.
However, the compulsion to use mediation restricts individual choice and in my opinion is not going to be the universal remedy that the government expects.
Also, the legal aid cuts are likely to mean that many couples will then be denied access to justice.
I really believe that this will especially affect thousands of children whose parents cannot resolve matters without help from family lawyers and the courts.
With the emotion involved in divorce, of course it’s stressful, but how much so depends on the couple’s legal representation and what approach is taken.
n Alison Straw is a collaborative lawyer and head of the family department at Taylor Bracewell