FAMILY lawyers fear proposals to offer mediation to couples involved in divorce may become compulsory by the back door.

The proposals, which are to be published in a white paper, are part of a package scrapping 'quickie' divorces, removing the notion of 'fault' and ending lengthy court actions.

The Lord Chancellor has not indicated he will make mediation compulsory but the changes will offer every couple the opportunity to reach agreement informally.

However, lawyers believe that, in effect, law firms which offer mediation will consequently be placed in a stronger position when applying for a legal aid franchise.

Solicitors' Family Law Association spokesman Nigel Shepherd says because the Government is unlikely to provide more funding, money will have to come out of the existing budget.

But he says: “Government sums are wrong in comparing the cost of legal advice and mediation.” He says mediation is “currently subsidised by charity or mediators working for rates that would not be accepted on a worldwide basis”.

Some solicitors feel the emphasis on mediation could be used to exclude legal advice.

“The greater encouragement of mediation is to be supported. But it is not suitable in every case and in so far as it is used as a replacement for legal advice that must be strenuously disagreed with,” says Shepherd, of Lace Mawer in Manchester.

He says the group supports many of the proposals such as a year for reflection after filing for divorce “provided that it's used constructively to sort out arrangements for children and the financial arrangements”.