FAMILY lawyers have applauded Lord Mackay for his “political courage” in pushing divorce law reform and domestic violence issues to the fore of the Queen's Speech.
But although the Lord Chancellor's plans to remove fault from the divorce process and encourage mediation have now received official approval, some areas of the new Family Law Bill – which also reintroduces controversial plans for domestic violence protection – still rankle lawyers in the field.
Solicitors Family Law Association chair Nigel Shepherd last week questioned the inclusion of financial incentives to mediate in the Bill, saying funded legal advice should not be sacrificed at the hands of alternative dispute resolution.
He said although Mackay had made some concessions on the mediation debate, including removing the inference of compulsion and replacing enforced information sessions with a less formal structure, the Bill needed to ensure lawyers were available to advise throughout the dissolution process.
Legal aid funding for independent advice must not be restricted to provide an incentive for people to mediate, he said, and couples opting to resolve matters through solicitor negotiation or in the courts must not be financially disadvantaged.
“Despite the Lord Chancellor's willingness to listen to our concerns, we remain concerned that by imposing financial incentives to mediate, his proposals could push the more vulnerable in relationships – often women – into mediation when it is simply not appropriate,” said Shepherd.
“People should be allowed to make a genuinely voluntary and informed choice about mediation and should have access to independent legal advice before, during and after this process, as well as when it is unsuitable or breaks down.
“We are worried that unless these incentives are removed, mediation will get a bad name and divorcing couples will get unfair settlements. This cannot be right.”
Hilary Siddle, chair of the Law Society's family law committee, said that she hoped the Government's proposals would be improved through “constructive dialogue” with family lawyers “who understand how the current system works and what improvements are necessary”. She added: “This will result in a system which is fair, protects individuals' privacy and meets the needs of those using it.”