One of the first public spending cuts announced by the Government was to the £2bn legal aid bill, and one of the ways it proposed to do this was to reduce the number of divorce cases going through the overloaded family courts. The Justice Minister, Jonathan Djanogly, has now clarified the timetable and the mechanism for doing this. From 6 April this year couples seeking a divorce will be required to attend (and, if they can afford it, pay for) an assessment to establish whether mediation might be a better option.
This is a positive move, and not before time. Taxpayers have increasingly been picking up a ballooning bill for something that is essentially a private matter. Even when the two parties have funded the divorce themselves, the adversarial nature of the English legal system can exacerbate and prolong existing quarrels. And if one party qualifies for legal aid and the other does not, the scales may be unfairly weighted against the one without public funds.
The attractions of mediation should be obvious. As well as being cheaper all round, it tends to save a good part of the ill-feeling that a court case can build up. It also takes, on average, much less time: three or four months against more than a year. As long, drawn-out divorce proceedings are cited by many as the most traumatic part of a marriage break-up, especially for children involved, anything that minimises the time and agony involved should be welcomed.
There are two objections to what is proposed, one valid and one far less so. The valid one is that some cases probably do need to go before the court and in a proportion of these legal aid will be appropriate to ensure a just outcome. That includes cases where the wife or children need protection. But such exceptions have largely been recognised in the provisions, which now need to be tested in action.
The far less valid objection is that mediation is just a money-saving device that will have the effect of depriving poor people of justice. Such an argument smacks of lawyers and lobbyists whose prime purpose is to safeguard their rather generous earnings from family break-up. It should not be allowed to derail a necessary reform.