There was a time when people's first response to a parenting dispute was to send a solicitor’s letter and threaten the other parent with court. However, more people are moving away from court and turning to mediation to help them sort things out for their children.
Parents have got the message that going to court takes longer and is more expensive than using mediation. On top of that there's uncertainty about what the outcome will be in a court case - what if neither parent gets what they want? The time, cost, and uncertainty of going to court can all add worry to an already stressful situation.
Family court judges have always known that parents are usually the best people to make decisions about their children. But, when parents don't get on and can't communicate, agreeing on a decision can be easier said than done. Nobody likes going to court but parents can often feel like they have no choice if the other parent refuses to negotiate with them.
Mediation is often the answer, as it gives separating parents a dedicated space to negotiate their way to an agreement. To encourage people to consider this option, the government has introduced changes so that parents are now expected to attend a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAM) before they can apply to court.
As a result of these changes, the MIAM has become the first stop for parents who want help in sorting out disputes about their children.
The MIAM is usually a one-to-one meeting between a parent and a mediator although occasionally both parents can be seen together. Once the mediator understands what the problem is, they will provide information about the different options open to parents and guidance about which approach might be best for them. Parents then decide what they would like to do.
Mediation is voluntary and, for it to work, people have to be willing to give it a try. Parents always have the final say. Occasionally, the mediator will advise against using mediation. In either case, if mediation is not going ahead, the mediator will provide the signed confirmation that someone has attended a MIAM. This form is needed to make an application to court.
If any of that sounds familiar, then mediation can definitely help. It's the mediator’s job to make sure that everyone's views and feelings are taken into account, especially the children’s. Using an impartial, trained mediator helps to keep the focus on the children and on future possibilities rather than dwelling on past complaints. Most importantly, parents stay in control of the decisions in a private, supported, and respectful environment.
From a child's perspective, the thought of one parent taking the other to court can feel scary. They are likely to feel much happier with the thought that their mum and dad are sitting down to talk about them and working things out together.
You can find your nearest mediator through National Family Mediation. There are charges for MIAMs and mediation but if you are on a low income or benefits such as Income Support you might qualify for free mediation through Legal Aid.
This article is written by Bernie Davis, specialist family mediator.