Firstly, to address the question right at the top of the page: no, mediation is not the same as relationship counselling. If you look up the word ‘mediation’ in a dictionary, you will find something along the following lines: “intervention in a dispute in order to resolve it,” or “intervention in a process or relationship, intercession.”
In the context of family law, mediation has a specific and specialised meaning. It refers to a formal negotiation process held between couples who are struggling to reach an agreement on the practical aspects of their divorce or separation, under the guidance of a trained mediator. Usually, such mediators are not legally trained, although if either party has legal representation, their solicitor can provide valuable guidance on the details of the agreement.
Matters typically discussed during mediation include:
- The division of property and assets.
- How much child support will be paid.
- Whether spousal support will be paid.
- Who will pay the school fees.
- Which parent the children will live with and how often they will see the other.
In other words: legal mediation is purely for the resolution of the practical matters surrounding a divorce or separation, and is not concerned with the dynamics of their relationship, which is already effectively over by that point. Couples who begin mediation have already made the decision to go their separate ways. In sharp contrast, relationship counselling usually takes place before the couple have made any formal decision, in hopes of avoiding a split.
The intention behind legal mediation process is to help separating couples who may be at loggerheads stay out of the courts. This cuts costs and decreases rancour – great for the divorcing couple once they let go of any resentment they may be feeling towards the other. But it also benefits the family courts themselves, many of whom are overloaded and struggling to stay on top of the increasing demand for their time.
The government has promoted legal mediation for a number of years now. People planning to launch proceedings in the family courts are still required to attend a mediation information and assessment meeting (MIAM) beforehand. These are intended to provide would-be litigants with an opportunity to explore the potential of mediation and its relevance to their own case. They are asked to consider whether it might be a viable alternative to court action and if so, a first appointment will be set up for them.