Law: Our Learned Friend - Don't fight. Mediate your way out of the relationship

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I WENT to a wedding recently where the bride's parents (each with their new partners) sat on opposite sides of the aisle. The wedding reception was a tense affair. Both the bride's father and stepfather made speeches but the animosity between them was evident - all very sad as the bride's parents had divorced some 10 years earlier.

Each year, about 300,000 couples marry, and 160,000 couples divorce. The divorce rate has stabilised over the last three to four years, but the popularity of marriage as an institution is in gradual decline.

Some see this as a natural development in an increasingly Godless society. Others point to the unreality of an institution based on "til death us do part". But there is increasing public awareness of the huge pain which divorce can inflict on families both in emotional and financial terms.

What part do lawyers play in all of this - an unpopular breed, whom the public regard as largely responsible for delay, acrimony and costs?

As the Family Law Act 1996 is phased in gradually so that the fault grounds for divorce are removed, now is the time when many will look at alternatives to the conventional legal process. Many couples are choosing the mediation option as a civilised means of resolving the disputes which arise when a relationship ends, such as whether to divorce or separate and what arrangements should be made for the children, finance and accommodation.

Mediation has nothing to do with reconciliation, although this may conceivably be the by-product. Instead, couples meet with a trained mediator who will help them to identify the areas of disagreement and to explore the areas for settlement. The process is confidential and both parties will be encouraged to take independent legal advice at the end of it. Indeed, many mediators (including myself) are specialist family lawyers wearing a different hat.

Susannah and Alan came to see me in mediation earlier this year. Both agreed that the marriage was over, but were still living together. Both were anxious to see as much of the children as possible. Alan had formed a new relationship, and Susannah was upset about this and mindful of the effect this could have on the children. Both had strong - and opposing - views as to whether the matrimonial home should be sold. In mediation, it was possible to agree a pattern of contact so that Alan could spend frequent time with the children. Alan was able to agree that the children should not be brought into contact with his girlfriend until the separation took place. It was agreed that the house should be sold but Susannah would receive a greater proportion of the proceeds to reflect the fact that Alan had superior pension provision. Both took the agreement to their own lawyers, an agreed settlement was reached and the legal costs were reduced considerably.

If the case had proceeded to a court hearing, costs on each side could have totalled thousands of pounds with delays of a year or more. In mediation, a settlement can be reached in a matter of weeks. But the mediators still require detailed disclosure of financial circumstances.

Mediation is also suitable for cohabiting couples or same sex couples who may wish to consider arrangements concerning children, property ownership and housing.

The cost of mediation will be split between the couple in whatever proportion they agree. Typically, mediation sessions last one to two hours and lawyer mediators charge about pounds 70 per person per session. Usually the process is completed in four sessions although this depends on the issues under discussion and the complexity of the case. Selected services also offer mediation under the legal aid scheme to those who satisfy the relevant financial criteria.

If you are keen to achieve an amicable end to your marriage or relationship, then I urge you to consider mediation. It is impossible to walk away from a relationship where children are involved. School meetings, graduations and weddings mean that couples will continue to meet as parents. Mediation can help in creating an environment where those meetings will be in a spirit of respect and courtesy instead of the heat and animosity as a result of a legal battle.

Kim Beatson is a partner at Anthony Gold, Lerman & Muirhead