The new justice minister, , whose departmental responsibilities include family law, has backed government plans to make mediation mandatory for separating couples.
The requirement – ensuring that those involved in disputes about property or agreeing child contact times speak to professional mediators before going to court – is contained in the children and families bill. It is expected to come into force in April.
Mediation involves couples holding discussions, co-ordinated by a certified mediator, in an initial attempt to reach an agreement that both are prepared to accept before having to enter into a more confrontational and expensive dispute through the courts . Couples who agree on a settlement can ask a court to make it into a legally binding, enforceable order.
Hughes said: "Mediation works and we are committed to making sure that more people make use of it, rather than go through the confrontational and stressful experience of going to court.
"When people separate we want them to do it in the least damaging way for everyone involved, especially children. That is why we want them to use the excellent mediation services available to agree a way forward, rather than have one forced upon them."
Mediation practitioners have reported . The introduction of a mandatory referral to mediation is expected to boost use.
Under the new powers, anyone divorcing or separating who wants to apply for a court order about a child or financial matter must first attend a mediation information and assessment meeting. There will be exemptions in certain cases, such as where there is evidence of domestic violence.
The Ministry of Justice says the average legal aid cost of resolving a private family dispute following a relationship breakdown is about £500 per couple through mediation – compared with £4,000 per person for issues settled through the courts. The average time for a mediated case is 110 days compared with 435 days for non-mediated cases.
Among lawyers, the first working day in January is known as divorce day because of the surge of inquiries lawyers received after the Christmas break.