Lucinda Connell, Senior Solicitor with North East’s leading Divorce and Family Law Specialists, Major Family Law, states National Family Mediation, which is the largest provider of family mediation in England and Wales, has called for closer practical collaboration between lawyers and family mediators.

In a recent speech to Birmingham Law Society Jane the chief executive officer of NFM, Jane Robey, acknowledges that “gaps” have sprung up between the interests of professional mediators and solicitors, but went on to say that family mediators want a genuine partnership with members of the legal profession to help people access quality legal advice on the options for their futures which they developed in mediation.

Urging NFM and Law Society discussions to begin, Ms Robey outlines three initial proposals for closer mediator–solicitor collaboration:

On lawyers seeing both parties

Referring to the recent recommendations of the government’s Family Mediation Task Force she says:

“One of the recommendations provides an opportunity for us to do something different and that is for a lawyer to be able to see both parties who have been in mediation. I want to work together with the legal profession to achieve that change. I appreciate there are regulations but I think it is worth looking at. It will help us all provide more holistic services for families, it will keep the whole families interests and needs in the frame and will call time on adversarial proceedings.”

On fixed fee advice

“Another opportunity for working together is to get the help with mediation working for all clients not just the legally-aided. I know family lawyers are grappling with the fixed fee for family matters. Maybe there is a parallel here with fixed fee conveyancing which as we know has been around for many years. For us to be able to tell clients that they can have advice on the options they have developed in mediation and drafting services for a fixed would be enormously beneficial.”

On the recommendations of the Financial Remedies Report

“The Financial Remedies Report recommends a unified procedure for financial order applications after a divorce and Children Act Schedule 1 applications. This I think will be hugely beneficial for families and keeps the money closely aligned to the children. There is also the fact that the MIAM is compulsory for both child issues and financial remedies and at every point there is emphasis on out of court settlement. which means there are opportunities for us to support families and the courts as people hover between the steps of court and reaching settlement.”

Jane Robey’s speech is clear in some requests she has for the legal profession, including an acknowledgement that a great many of the issues that form the basis of court battles are not necessarily legal ones:

“If a mediated agreement is manifestly unfair to one party or the other then legal intervention is right and just. But I speak with many years’ experience – and I know many here will nod in agreement – when I say that in the large majority of cases what’s being argued about in the settlement isn’t the cake on the table, but the crumbs falling from it. We all know the plethora of cases we’ve been involved in where the Judge’s adjudication revolves around issues that are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, like pick-up times from school. Yet those aren’t and shouldn’t be seen as a legal issue.

I want it recognised that families need legal advice and intervention that is proportionate – and relevant to what they have already been able to agree between themselves.”

Jane Robey also outlines how the dramatic increase in the number of unrepresented people is profoundly affecting the types of questions people are asking NFM, reporting that those who used to approach NFM had more often than not had the benefit of some early legal advice which provided some realism about the options available and helped manage client expectation.

It is evident that legal advice and mediation are not mutually exclusive nor replacements for the other. Indeed, the message clearly is that the future lies in the provision of mediation to separating couples who are at the same time able to access and receive quality legal advice. This is not a particularly new idea and the desirability of providing an option for legal advice and mediation to be offered in tandem and cost effectively has led to the creation of the innovative Lawyer Supported Mediation, founded by trained family mediator, Marc Lopatin.

Lawyer Supported Mediation (LSM) is a new approach for resolving financial and children issues arising from a relationship breakdown. LSM is an ideal choice for separating partners who, although in disagreement, want to avoid the expense of more costly lawyer-led proceedings. The LSM approach includes the use of local panels of independent expert family lawyers and mediators. The carefully selected LSM panel lawyers work in partnership with a mediator to provide the legal advice and documentation required to support mediation. By providing price certainty through fixed fee legal advice, Lawyer Supported Mediation is a very cost effective way of helping parties reach a binding settlement whilst ensuring both parties have quality independent legal advice.