Separating parents could be forced to go to mediation under Raab plans

Move aims to help families in England and Wales resolve issues while reducing pressure on courts and impact on children

Thousands of children in England and Wales could be protected from witnessing their parents pitted against each other in the courts under proposals to legally enforce mediation for separating families.

Mediation would become mandatory in all suitable low-level family court cases excluding those which include allegations or a history of domestic violence under the proposals, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has said.

This will mean separating couples have to attempt to agree their child custody and financial arrangements through a qualified mediator, with court action being a last resort.

It is hoped the move would help up to 19,000 separating families resolve their issues away from the courtroom, while also reducing backlogs and easing pressures on the family courts.

The proposals will be subject to a government consultation, which will run for 12 weeks, closing on 15 June.

The justice secretary, Dominic Raab, said: “When parents drag out their separation through lengthy and combative courtroom battles it impacts on their children’s school work, mental health and quality of life.

“Our plans will divert thousands of time-consuming family disputes away from the courts – to protect children and ensure the most urgent cases involving domestic abuse survivors are heard by a court as quickly as possible.”

The government’s family mediation voucher scheme would be extended until April 2025 with an additional £15m in funding, the MoJ said. The scheme provides separating couples with vouchers worth up to £500 to help them solve disputes through mediation and has so far supported more than 15,300 families.

The proposals include introducing a new power for judges to order parents to make a reasonable attempt to go to mediation, with possible financial penalties if they act unreasonably and harm a child’s wellbeing by prolonging court proceedings.

Mediation is a process in which couples work through their differences with a trained and accredited mediator to reach agreements such as how to split assets or arrange child contact times, rather than have a judge decide for them.

An analysis of the first 7,200 users of the mediation scheme shows 69% of participants have reached whole or partial agreements away from court.

Estimates suggest one in four families who have child arrangements settled by judges have been to court before in the past three years.

Jacky Tiotto, the chief executive of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass), said: “Cafcass strongly welcomes the focus on supporting more parents to agree how they will care for their children and spend time together without the need to make an application to the family court when they are separating.”

John Taylor, the chair of the Family Mediation Council, said: “Family mediation can play a really positive role in producing better outcomes for separating families and in reducing the burden on courts. This consultation shows that ministers recognise its value in helping separating couples make parenting and financial arrangements without the stress and delays involved in going to court.

“It builds on the government’s successful £500 voucher scheme, which is encouraging separating couples to consider family mediation to resolve their disputes. The next few weeks will help shine further light on a process that has the potential to help many thousands more shape the futures of all their family members.”