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LEGAL aid has been extended to cover a pilot mediation scheme, in a bid to attract more participants. Solicitors are now able to receive payment from the Legal Aid Board for attending the scheme, which runs at Central London County Court and offers mediation for money claims of more than £3,000, with no upper limit.
It is hoped the move will increase the numbers taking part in the pilot, which has suffered a slow take-up since it began a year ago. The scheme has now been extended until next May.
Judge Neil Butter QC, who heads the scheme, said: "Solicitors who were previously unwilling for their legally-aided clients to take part in the mediation process will now be able to attend mediation knowing their costs will be catered for, even if a settlement is not reached."
Legal advice is used by at least one of the parties in the majority of mediation cases, according to Professor Hazel Genn of University College London, who is monitoring the pilot. Solicitors and parties in dispute have rejected mediation because of lack of knowledge, misconceptions about what is involved, and concern about recovering costs, added Genn.
A Court Service spokesperson said more than 100 mediations had been held, and two-thirds were settled on the evening or "shortly afterwards". Mediators are paid £25 by each party and are independent of the court. Everything said during mediation is treated as confidential, and the case can proceed to court if the dispute is not resolved.
Legal Action Group head of policy Vicki Chapman said she welcomed the extension of legal aid to the pilot, adding: "Dispute resolution only works if people have access to it, and ability to pay is one requirement of access."