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Divorce mediation could save millions

Reuters Friday March 2, 12:50 AM

LONDON (Reuters) - Millions of pounds of taxpayers' money is being wasted by family breakdown cases being dragged through the courts instead of entering the mediation process, a report has shown.

The National Audit Office (NAO) said a third of people who had been through a family breakdown had not been told mediation was an option, despite solicitors and legal advisers having a duty to do so.

Some 42 percent of them said they would have been willing to try it -- a move that would have saved the taxpayer 10 million pounds.

Mediation allows couples who are splitting up to try to come to an agreement over issues such as custody of children with the help of a trained professional -- without having to negotiate through solicitors or going to court.

But solicitors stand to lose potential fees if a case is settled out of court, and the NAO called for those with a significantly lower number of cases which go to mediation to be investigated.

If there is no good reason for the low take-up, they should have their contracts curtailed, it said.

Sir John Bourn, head of the NAO, said: "The Legal Services Commission (LSC) needs to publicise the advantages of mediation and remove the financial disincentives to solicitors of recommending this option to their clients.

"Mediation can provide a less adversarial route than the courts for many families involved in a breakdown and result in savings in legal aid of over 10 million pounds a year."

Professional mediation is generally cheaper, quicker and less acrimonious than court intervention, and research shows it secures better outcomes, particularly for children.

On average, a mediated case takes 100 days to resolve and costs 752 pounds, compared to 435 days and 1,682 pounds in cases where mediation is not used, according to the NAO report.

However, take-up of mediation in cases funded by legal aid is around 20 percent.

Only 29,000 out of 149,000 people attempting to resolve their family dispute tried mediation between October 2004 and March 2006.

Edward Leigh MP, chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts to which the NAO reports, said the findings were "worrying".

"Confrontation in court cannot always be avoided, but the alternative of mediation should be pursued wherever possible -- to the benefit of the disputing individuals and, also the taxpayer," he said.

"The LSC must crack down on solicitors who are neglecting their duties in briefing their clients about mediation, and instead are happy to jump straight into the courtroom, leaving the taxpayer to pick up the bill."

The Conservative party said it was "shocking" that the government had not done more to increase the use of mediation.

"This just goes to show how much potential there is to improve the legal aid system by concentrating on alternative dispute resolution," said the party's constitutional affairs spokesman Oliver Heald.

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