Lord McNally, Family Justice Minister
April 1 2013 saw the inception of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, one of the most far reaching legal provisions in a generation.
Some commentators see the change in the legal aid rules as a disaster.
Since April, your blogger, wearing his hat as barrister and advocate, attends court to face increasing numbers of litigants in person – and cases out of control. For the judges it is more stressful. They have the immensely difficult job of case management with parties that fail to understand the rules and question the reasons for them.
And of course, there are those who cannot contemplate representing themselves and simply feel shut out of their legal remedies. The courts were not ready for this. There is some help from the Bar Council’s guide, and more from Lucy Reed‘s Family Courts Without a Lawyer publication. But almost certainly, this will not be enough to avoid degrees of chaos.
The Ministry of Justice has however allocated £25 million (an increase of £15m) to support family mediation. Lord McNally, Family Justice Minister expects mediation assessment meetings to provide the answer – providing important information about facilitation and allowing parties access to mediation services. McNally contends that, with mediation, the average time to resolve property and financial remedy disputes drops from 435 days to 110 days, together with the accompanying reduction of cost and stress to the parties.
Leading up to, and since 1 April, new mediation services (such as the pilot at Teesside Combined Court Centre) and the blogger’s service ‘Divorce Without Pain‘ have sprung up to deal with the increase in need for mediation. It is too early to tell whether these schemes will flourish, and indeed whether parties to a dispute will favour specialist lawyer mediators.
Arbitration has likewise come to the fore as a method of dealing with property and financial remedy disputes. For several years these methods have been tested in Ontario, Canada and Australia – and introduced two years ago in Scotland through its Family Law Arbitration Group Scotland. Vancouver arbitrator Georgialee Lang, speaks of the “disharmony, conflict, lengthy delays and outrageous legal fees.” arising from the current court systems for family law – and describes courts as “the worst place for couples to resolve their divorce issues”.
The English Family Law Arbitration Scheme set up by the Institute of Family Law Arbitrators is now celebrating its first anniversary, and reports steady progress, with numbers of trained arbitrators reaching double figures. It is still unclear how the courts will enforce the arbitration awards, although the Arbitration Act 1996 is susceptible for the purpose.
The courts too appear to favour the advent of arbitration in such disputes. Although W v M (2012) EWHC 1679 (Fam) relates to a Trusts of Land and Appointment of Trustees Act 1996 dispute, Mostyn J at para 70 said “Where parties are agreed that their case should be afforded total privacy there is a very simple solution: they sign an arbitration agreement. Arbitration has long been available in proceedings such as these. Recently arbitration has also become available in financial remedy proceedings by virtue of the much-to-be-welcomed scheme promoted by the Institute of Family Law Arbitrators. In those proceedings also privacy can now be guaranteed”.
In T v T (2012) EWHC 3462 (Fam) Nicholas Francis QC concluded that where a married couple had entered into a premarital agreement with an arbitration clause, the English court would not restrain the husband from seeking to enforce arbitration in the USA.
Cases such as W v M and T v T set the trend. Now what is needed is the culture change. It will be when parties to a dispute think ‘mediation’ or ‘arbitration’ as the first call, that we will see the proper rise of private dispute resolution rather than reliance on the courts and the lawyers that fan the flames.