Breaking Boundaries: Reshaping family mediation policy & practice
Research evidence from the ‘Mapping Paths to Family Justice’ study (Mapping) led by Professor Anne Barlow at the University of Exeter has helped to reshape family mediation policy and practice and improve user experience for separating couples, after radical legal aid changes.
Approximately 108,000 couples divorce annually, with many unable to agree arrangements for finances and children. Legal aid changes in 2013 aimed to encourage greater use of family mediation in place of legal advice and representation, but resulted in more disputes reaching the family courts.
Research from Exeter both explained this phenomenon and informed the mediation response to it.
The team have worked with key government, practitioner and charity stakeholders who accepted the evidence of the Mapping findings and wanted to embed them in new family justice initiatives. Their research has achieved several significant impacts, influencing the work of the government’s ‘Family Mediation Taskforce’, the ‘Family Mediation Council’ and more recently the ‘Family Solutions Group’, which reported to the President of the Family Division.
The Mapping study was launched in 2011 and collected and analysed data from two nationally representative surveys with a total of more than 6,500 people; 13 recorded family dispute resolution processes; and in-depth interviews with 40 practitioners and 95 separated parties who had experienced family dispute resolution between 1996 and 2013.
The findings relating to family mediation included, frustration with an overload of confusing online information; the importance of emotional and practical readiness of both parties to successful mediation; and the need for better, more consistent screening into and out of mediation to avoid inappropriate cases involving domestic abuse, mental health issues, skewed power balance entering the process without proper risk assessment and potential safeguards. Mediation was designed to be child-focused but the project found that it was rarely child-inclusive, limiting children’s voices in decisions affecting them when parents separate.
Through working with the Ministry of Justice and the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service from 2016, the research shaped the development of government policy to improve understanding of the benefits of mediation and encourage uptake where appropriate. It also influenced the design of improved public information. Collaborating with relationship charities Relate and Oneplusone, the research team helped to provide resources and tools to reassure and prepare those considering mediation.
The research has also had a big impact on the way mediators are trained, first in the UK and later internationally including Russia, Italy, Denmark, Switzerland, Ukraine and Turkey. Key changes help identify the importance of ‘emotional readiness’ for mediation, and the dangers of not screening appropriately into and out of mediation. Two scripted YouTube videos Considering mediation? and Mediating Safely draw on the lived experiences of research participants, with the impact of this brought home to the professionals, leading to a change in standard practice.
In addition, the research has been the catalyst for a formal change in Family Mediation Council standards and professional practice on screening for suitability to mediate, as well as a new requirement for mediators to explain and encourage the option of child-inclusivity. Including a separate interview between the child and the mediator can help reduce conflict between parents and help couples reach agreement.
Since 2017 there has been a 20% increase in legally aided mediation starts, a 13% increase in mediation agreements and, child-inclusive mediation uptake has almost doubled.
Breaking boundaries provides a bitesize look into the variety of leading research that has, and still is changing the world from the University of Exeter.
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