Business

Divorce: Couples face new mediation rules and warnings

Image caption The government wants to cut its own legal aid bill for family cases

Divorces in England and Wales could become quicker, less stressful and cheaper, but there are fears people will miss out on advice.

Under government changes in force from 6 April, most separating couples will be expected to try mediation before going to the courts.

Couples can pay between £20,000 and £50,000 if a divorce case requires court time, said one mediation firm.

This could drop to between £5,000 and £10,000 if mediation worked, it said.

The Mediation Specialists, which provides the service, said cases in court could be much more expensive if they were particularly complicated.

Impartial

The government wants to cut its own legal aid bill for family cases by 75% to save money.

So from 6 April, it is asking people in England and Wales to go to at least one mediation meeting to see if it will work for them.

After that initial session, mediation is not compulsory. If either partner decides at any stage that mediation is not working, they can still go down the court route.

The changes will not affect complicated cases involving domestic violence or child safety. Mediation is aimed at couples who cannot agree about custody and money.

Therese Nichols, a family lawyer with Russell-Cooke, who works as a mediator, said: "I am appointed by the couple to help them reach solutions for any issues arising out the breakdown of their relationship or marriage.

"It is not for everybody, but those who do mediate find it is cheaper, certainly quicker than the courts, and gives them long-lasting solutions that they are happy with."

Couples who used mediation will still need to hire their own lawyers, but would not necessarily need them to be involved at every step along the way, she said.

'Crazy money'

David Leon was married for 30 years. When he split up with his wife, they both knew dividing their home, savings and pensions was going to be complicated.

Image caption David Leon still found that a marriage split cost thousands of pounds

"It looked as if it was going to be very acrimonious, confrontational, bloody, and it could have ended up in court," he said.

The couple tried mediation with Ms Nichols instead. By the time they had paid for her services as well their own lawyers, they spent around £25,000.

But Mr Leon believes the couple still saved money.

"It is not bad if you consider the alternative. If we had taken it all the way to court, it could collectively cost about £100,000. That is crazy money to throw away," he said.

He thinks mediation helped their relationship too. Now, they are good friends.

"You have not got all that acrimony you would have in court cases. It is a far more sensible way of doing it," he said.

Advice

Mediators do not necessarily have to be lawyers. Couples could find themselves seeing therapists of family counsellors instead. Whatever their background, all mediators are trained by an approved body.

But consumer groups are warning couples that it is essential to find the right person to help their case.

Sarah Pennells, from the Savvy Woman personal finance website, said: "It is not as simple as picking a name out the phone book and assuming that mediator is for you. If you want to sort out your finances through mediation, it is important that you ask them the right questions.

"So find out about the kind of cases they have worked on so far and where their particular skills lie.

"If you are dividing something like a pension, which is notoriously complicated, be prepared for the fact you might still need to bring in outside expertise."

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