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http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2005/jun/27/childrensservices.politics

Divorce mediation scheme flops

Clare Dyer, legal editor

The Guardian - Monday 27th June 2005

Only 23 couples take part in pilot plan to help separated parents resolve child contact disputes

Plans to introduce a child-friendly way of dealing with battles between separated parents have been derailed after a pilot procedure was completed by just 23 couples in nine months.
The figure is far below the 1,000 that ministers expected would use the system. Three family courts in London, Brighton and Sunderland were chosen to try out a one-year project due to end in September, which could have become the norm in England and Wales for resolving child contact disputes after parents split up.

The project is based on programmes in the US and Scandinavia which have reduced the harmful effects of family breakups on children.

But in a parliamentary answer, the children's minister, Maria Eagle, has revealed the extent to which the project, which has cost nearly £200,000 so far, has fallen short of expectations.

Only 47 couples had begun the procedure, of whom 23 had completed the programme of classes followed by mediation - which the government prefers to call "parent planning" - to agree a parenting schedule.

The classes give information about the children's need for frequent and continuing contact with both parents and the adverse effects conflict can have on their lives. Parents are taught how to manage post-divorce battles and sit down with a mediator to apportion children's time between them.

The failure of the scheme is a disappointment to judges who backed it, and will anger fathers' groups whose lobbying helped persuade the government to set it up.

Critics say the flaw is that the programme is not compulsory and parents are simply opting to bypass it. Ministers say mediation cannot be made mandatory without primary legislation.

The government's children and adoption bill, which is due for second reading in the House of Lords on Wednesday, contains no provision for compulsory mediation. The Conservatives said they would try to amend the bill to make mediation mandatory and to spell out in the statute, as in the US and Norway, that children have the right to spend substantial time with both parents after family break-up.

Theresa May, shadow secretary of state for the family, said: "It is obvious that this pilot project was simply a sham to get the government out of a political hole. Ministers wanted to neutralise the protests from fathers' groups, and this project was the plan they cooked up to do it.

"However, while the government have wasted hundreds of thousands of pounds on a phoney project, children are being denied contact with parents who love them.

"It is time that the government admitted defeat, scrapped the pilot project and addressed the real problem, that the family justice system needs a complete and radical overhaul."

Experience in the US, where many states passed laws providing for mandatory mediation nearly 25 years ago, shows that it defuses parental battles and dramatically reduces the number of court cases.

Among those supporting compulsory mediation are district judge Nicholas Crichton, who oversees the family resolutions pilot at Wells Street magistrates' court in London, and Dr Hamish Cameron, a child psychiatrist who, with Judge Crichton, helped devise the "early intervention" scheme, which was scrapped in favour of the government's family resolutions project.

Dr Cameron, who has nearly 35 years' experience in court cases involving children, said: "We're 10 to 15 years behind best practice in other countries. We're still failing many children in this country."

The national family law solicitors' group, Resolution, and a number of high court family judges also support a mandatory scheme. Some senior judges are unconvinced that the present law bars compulsory mediation.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said: "In the absence of legal powers to compel participation, we did not expect every eligible couple to take part in the pilot."

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