Legal Aid – extending the funding available
The Government has announced in recent weeks that it intends to extend the scope of Legal Aid Agency funding for family mediation to include not only the cost of the parties attending a MIAMS appointment but also the cost of a first joint session. At present if one party meets the funding code criteria then both parties will have the cost of the MIAMS met by the Legal Aid Agency however the non funded party would then have to bear their part of the cost of the joint sessions with the publicly funded party having their costs met out of public funds.
What will the changes mean ?
Both parties will have the cost of the first session met by the Legal Aid Agency in addition to the MIAMS appointment. Whilst this is welcomed, many Legal Aid franchise holders are concerned about the impact of this on the mediation process. At present staged payments are made per session with then a separate payment made for a “successful “ outcome and a written summary. The changes may potentially have a detrimental impact upon the commercial viability of services to continue to offer legal aid mediation if the parties are only willing to attend one session and forgo the formal documentation not to mention bring pressure to bear upon the process itself. As experienced mediators well know it is simply not often possible to resolve all issues in the first session or seek to do so, the task is too great and for many parties having the multiple sessions and the space in between is invaluable to test arrangements, take legal advice, tweak interim proposals and have a positive experience with which to work from in order to stand the best possible change of achieving a longer term outcome. It is in short part of the mediation journey.
The detail of the proposed funding and the structure of that funding are however yet to be released so it is a case of watch this space…
What is positive however is that the additional monies provided are to be welcomed as a message that family mediation really can make a difference and is being supported by the Government as a forum of choice for many separating parents.
Mediation at Court
In West Yorkshire local mediators moved away from a physical presence at Courts on First Hearing Dispute Resolution Days to a telephone rota based service so that if parties attend at Court for the hearing and had not attended at a MIAMS pre-issue then they could speak to a mediator over the telephone and arrange to attend a MIAMS appointment, if CAFCASS and the Courts did not feel that safeguarding issues would render that inappropriate.
Different practices are being adopted in different local Courts. Working with the Family Court at Leeds as local mediators we are concentrating on trying to forge alliances with CAFCASS, legal advisors and the Personal Support Unit to improve links and awareness of the role mediation can play in assisting parties to resolve their differences away from the Court arena as opposed to continuing a formal rota based system at Court.
Local mediation services are continuing to report a rise in MIAMS referrals pre issue and it is understood that the Court lists for private children law applications are down on last year. It is too early to say whether this is due to more parties managing to resolve issues without needing to resort to formal Court action or whether parties simply are unable to find means to obtain access to the Court system.
It is important that we all continue to do our bit locally and nationally where possible to highlight the positive benefits of Mediation and other forms of Dispute Resolution outside the Court arena.