In the early days of separation from a partner or spouse, when the world feels upside-down, it can be difficult to know where to turn. Your friends say you need a lawyer but you’re not sure you want legal advice as much as practical guidance; plus you’ve heard that mediation – what is that, by the way? – might be better for the kids and less impactful on the family budget. You turn to Google, which offers conflicting suggestions. How do you know whom to trust?
These were some of the problems identified by Resolution when the Department for Work and Pensions asked it to devise a scheme under the Help and Support for Separating Families (HSSF) programme to assist separating couples who have no access to legal aid for family court proceedings. It created the ‘Family Matters’ project, which ran for two-and-a-half years in three centres across England. Unlike traditional lawyers and in a more ‘hands on’ way than traditional mediators, the Family Matters Guides worked with both adults throughout their family breakdown, providing impartial information and support to enable both people to move forwards towards resolving arrangements for the future outside court. It was very successful, with a high degree of participant satisfaction.
Research on the project indicates that there may be a specific early pre-mediation or pre-litigation phase of family breakdown where there is a need not to provide legal advice as such, but to create a practical framework for those going through separation so that they can become ready to work constructively in the next stage. The ‘early stages’ phase has been touched on before in research, and comes when people are not quite ready either to see a lawyer or to go into mediation and start sorting things out.
This ‘early stages’ phenomenon is something that lawyers and mediators understand all too well. When people come to see us just after a separation, they often struggle to take in the information that they feel they need. This happens across all types of person – male, female, homemaker, CEO – because when we are shocked and upset we lose the ability to process information as efficiently as we usually do. Anger and upset can fog the brain, and so can the sheer volume of arrangements that seem to need to be made.
The research suggests that the parents who were assisted by the family matters project benefitted from a specific type of ‘impartial’ and practical approach promoted by the Guides. We wonder though how different their approach was to our approach as highly trained lawyers and mediators when we first see a new client in the early stages.
A skilled mediator cannot take the place of a lawyer in providing legal advice – that is not part of the job. However, an initial meeting with a mediator, on your own, can help put in place a framework of support, information, guidance and reassurance to help you through the difficult early stages of separation and lay good foundations for resolving your issues later in whatever way is most appropriate. Where your mediator is also a lawyer, as we all are at CFLP, the discussion between the two of you can better guide you towards making the right choices for what happens next. It remains your choice, and you are in control of the process.
There were indications in the Family Matters research that the spouse who did not approach the project in the first place sometimes took time to engage. This is a phenomenon that mediators are well accustomed to – sometimes, people feel that if a mediator has spoken first with ‘the other side’ then they will already have formed an allegiance. This is not the case, as impartiality is at the heart of all a mediator does. But it does speak of the feeling, often mentioned by those recently separated in difficult circumstances, of needing to have someone just on your side.
This, of course, is what you get from a lawyer: someone on your side. Unfortunately, it is not always affordable throughout the process of separation or divorce. Even if you have a very low income, is no longer possible to get legal aid for legal advice and representation about a family separation unless you have been subject to domestic abuse, or there are other exceptional circumstances. However, If money is tight, legal aid is still available for family mediation, providing you qualify. Legal aid may be available to you if your gross monthly income is not more than £2,657, and you don’t have more than £8,000 in savings. To check if you may be eligible, call 0344 345 4345 or click here: to complete the calculation, say you are ‘in family mediation’ when asked. If you do qualify, it is free. If your former partner qualifies for legal aid, even if you don’t, the initial meeting with a mediator (‘MIAM’) is free of charge and so is the initial mediation session.
Cambridge Family Law Practice offers its mediation services, including first meetings and MIAMs, to clients who pay privately and to those who qualify for legal aid. If you’re interested in mediation, you can speak directly to our accredited mediator, Suzy Ashworth, on 01223 224384. If you’d like to make an appointment to speak to any of us about a family law matter – whether for a one-off, ad hoc meeting or for an ongoing instruction – you can call Adam, Sue, Tricia, Simon or Adam on 01223 443333.