Couples to be forced to consider mediation

Couples will be forced to consider mediation to resolve any disputes before resorting to the courts under a shake-up of the divorce system.

Justice minister Jonathan Djanogly, who has said people are often too willing to hand over their personal problems for the state to solve, said mediation was "a quicker, cheaper and more amicable alternative".

The move follows a recommendation from the Family Justice Review report that was intended to cut the strain on the system as an increasing number of parents become involved in legal wrangles over children and money.

All separating couples will have to consider mediation first before turning to the courts to settle disputes from April 6 under a new agreement between judges and the Ministry of Justice.

The proposals represent an extension of the system already in place for couples granted legal aid.

Mr Djanogly said: "Mediation is a quicker, cheaper and more amicable alternative, particularly where children are concerned.

"Nearly every time I ask someone if their stressful divorce battle through the courts was worth it, their answer is no.

"Mediation already helps thousands of legally-aided people across England and Wales every year, but I am concerned those funding their own court actions are missing out on the benefits it can bring.

"Now everyone will have the opportunity to see if it could be a better solution than going straight to court."

A spokesman for the ministry said many people repeatedly go to court to argue over matters they are better-placed to sort out themselves, such as securing 30 minutes extra contact time with children or varying their allocated contact days.

About 137,000 such cases were dealt with in 2009, a rise of 16%, figures showed.

In cases where either party or the mediator feel that mediation will not be suitable, the cases will continue towards the court system.

Cases involving domestic violence or child protection issues will still bypass mediation and go straight to court.

Mediation was also cheaper than going to court, the ministry said, with data from legal aid cases showing the average cost per client of mediation as £535, compared with £2,823 for cases going to court.

The average time for a case using legally-aided mediation is 110 days, compared with 435 days for court cases on similar issues, National Audit Office figures showed.

In October, David Norgrove, chairman of the Whitehall review, said there was currently a "tremendous strain" on the system which was "really intolerable" for children and their parents.

The move comes after Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke's plans to scrap civil legal aid for a range of cases, including disputes over relationship break-ups, were condemned as "crude and brutal" by legal experts, with actress Joanna Lumley backing a campaign to urge Mr Clarke to think again.

But Mr Djanogly has insisted that, at more than £2 billion a year, the legal aid bill in England and Wales is far more per head than most other countries.

"Our proposals aim to radically reform the system and encourage people to take advantage of the most appropriate sources of help, advice or routes to resolution - which will not always involve the expense of lawyers or courts," he said.