This week marks the third “Family Dispute Resolution Week” initiated by Resolution which is an association of family lawyers and family law professionals.
The purpose of the initiative is to raise awareness for couples going through a separation as to possible alternatives to try and keep their particular case out of court.
It might not be immediately apparent for couples going through a separation that there are such things as mediation, arbitration, negotiation, collaborative law and also conciliation which are all designed at assisting those participating to reach an agreement in relation to their family law dispute by agreement and without having to rely on the court to make a final decision in the case.
It is almost universally accepted that resolution to a family law dispute which has been agreed by the parties themselves is far more likely to work well in practice in the time that follows than having it imposed on them by a Judge sitting in court.
The Government have been placing an increasing emphasis on encouraging parties to attend mediation before taking the step of issuing court proceedings. Indeed, since April 2014 every separating couple is required to at least consider family mediation prior to (and sometimes during) the court process.
Alternative ways of resolving a family law dispute can be useful not just in dealing with separating couples who wish sort out the financial assets but also in cases involving children. In relation to children cases it can frequently be the case that the parents simply cannot agree the detailed arrangements in terms of where the children live and at what times and mediation can be a useful way of sitting the parents down together with an independent third party to try and reach a compromise to such issues. Indeed, the family courts are being more proactive in referring children law cases to dispute resolution even when court proceedings are underway.
Many applications for child arrangement orders (formerly known as contact and residence orders) are being dealt with by lay Magistrates in the family courts. As a new initiative, some cases are being referred to a Judge led Conciliation Appointment prior to a final hearing. At those appointments a District Judge will consider the issues and try and assist the parents in reaching an agreement before the case proceeds to the final hearing. The Judge’s view at those hearings is not binding and the parties are under no obligation to reach agreement at the conciliation hearing, but the hope is that hearing the view of an experienced full time family law Judge will mean that the parties are more able to reach agreement rather than risking the decision being taken from their hands and imposed on them by Magistrates at a final hearing.