Kathy Marks looks at two ways of avoiding the heartache, bitterness and expense of divorce: mediation and the pre-emptive strike of the pre-nuptial contract
SOON after Natasha Roberts told her husband, Stephen, that their 22-year marriage was over, the battle lines were drawn. She wanted to remain in the family home and to keep their two daughters at private schools. Wounded and embittered, he refused to agree to anything.

The stage was set for them to slug it out through their solicitors, a lengthy and acrimonious process that could have ended up in the divorce courts. Early on, though, a lawyer suggested that they try to resolve their differences with the assistance of a mediator, an impartial third party.

By the time that they had completed five sessions, the couple had drawn up a satisfactory financial settlement. Mrs Roberts says that the process enabled them to communicate about practical matters and spared their daughters the spectacle of all-out war.

"We were absolutely unable to sort things out between ourselves," she said. "Mediation brought us together to talk, and helped to put our relationship on a civilised footing."

This is a route that is increasingly being taken by couples negotiating their way through the minefield of separation. It is likely to become even more common when the relevant sections of the Family Law Act 1996 - the hotly-contested divorce legislation introduced by the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay - come into force. The Act requires couples to be informed about the possibility of attending mediation sessions.

But there are still a lot of popular misconceptions surrounding it. Many people confuse it with marriage counselling. In reality, mediators offer no views on a relationship. They act as objective referees as far as the practicalities are concerned, encouraging couples to reach joint decisions on matters such as access to children, division of assets, housing and financial support.

The advantage over communicating through lawyers is that the approach is non-adversarial. But it does not work for everyone, or for every issue, according to Ruth Bross, who mediated for the Roberts. "It is often not appropriate if there has been domestic violence, or if there is a big power imbalance where one partner simply bullies the other," she said.

"Some people are so bitter that they can't sit down in the same room with each other, never mind talk reasonably. Others take part for the wrong reasons. I saw one couple where the man only attended as a way of seeing his partner and begging her to come back."

Mediation services have existed since the 1970s, and there are about 1,000 mediators, many affiliated to the Family Mediators Association or National Family Mediation. Some work alone, others in teams of two, pairing a lawyer with a professional from a social work or counselling background.

Ms Bross, partner in a north London legal firm, Bross & Bennett, stresses that mediation is not a substitute for legal advice; each partner is advised to retain an independent lawyer, and settlements should be legally ratified. Even so, the avenue can be relatively inexpensive: most couples require three to six 90-minute sessions, at a cost of about pounds 250 a session, compared to fees charged by central London lawyers of at least pounds 150 an hour. Legal Aid may become available in some cases.

Hazel Wright, spokeswoman for the Family Mediators Association, says it can be daunting for a couple to unravel their affairs in front of strangers. "They have to get to grips with all sorts of horrors and long-held fears," she says. "But the great thing is that if the couple do reach a settlement, it is theirs, it is not imposed by a third party such as a judge.

The names of the couple in this article have been changed.