by Lisa Parkinson
When a couple’s relationship breaks down, their communication often breaks down as well. If there are children, it can be very hard to co-operate as parents in the midst of separating as partners. And if there are financial and property matters to sort out, legal information may be needed as a framework for negotiations. But with few exceptions, legal aid is no longer available for family matters and paying privately for legal advice can cost a great deal, especially if there is lengthy correspondence between solicitors. Going to court in person can be a nightmare and the family courts are overloaded, so judges have little time for each case and there may be little opportunity to explain difficult situations in a few words.
So what other options are there? Mediation may be suggested, especially if a dispute is being taken to court, but many people fear having a row with their ex in the presence of a professional they hardly know, or feeling forced to give in because it is all too stressful. But mediation is not like that. It’s having a conversation with a qualified family mediator on your own first of all, to explain your circumstances and needs and consider possible ways forward with someone who can provide basic legal information and suggest sources of reliable advice. Before mediation can go ahead, your ex needs to have a similar information meeting and both (ex) partners need to be willing to take part in mediation with a mediator whom you have each met with and feel able to trust. Mediation usually takes place in joint meetings, but further separate meetings can be offered if necessary. It’s the mediator’s job to structure these meetings very carefully so that each of you has a chance to speak and be listened to and consider immediate priorities and needs, as well as needs in the longer term.
If you have children, mediation helps to focus on each child’s feelings and needs and how parents can co-operate and support their children. Older children and young people often want an opportunity to talk about their feelings and worries and may want to offer suggestions about the arrangements their parents are making for them. With the consent of both parents, an older child or young person can be invited to come and talk with the mediator on the understanding that the conversation is confidential (unless a child is said or believed to be at risk of significant harm) and that the mediator will share with their parents only a message, suggestion or request that the child or young person asks the mediator to give their parents to take into account in their decisions.
Does mediation work?
Researchers have found that mediation ‘improves parental and parent-child relationships’. In a recent follow-up study, almost 75% of those who had used mediation said they were satisfied with their experience. They appreciated having ‘a managed discussion’ with an agenda and the mediator keeping their discussions on track. Mediation was found to be quicker and cheaper compared with instructing lawyers. Other studies have found that almost all the children and young people who had met with a mediator had found it helpful to talk and put forward suggestions or concerns that they wanted their parents to understand better and take into account. As one boy said, ‘It’s my life too.’