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‘Administrative nightmare’ between MoJ and Family Mediation Council

Closure of National Mediation Helpline to cause 'havoc' with mediation services in England and Wales

7 July 2014

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The Ministry of Justice's decision to close its National Mediation Helpline, which provides civil court users in England and Wales with advice and information about low-cost accredited mediation providers, has been described as a "serious error", according to one leading mediator.

Graham Lyons, a barrister and principal of Family First Mediation, says that the helpline was handed over to the Family Mediation Council (FMC) without consulting experienced specialist providers of family mediation.

Lyons told SJ that the MoJ had made errors about promoting family mediation and has sent a letter arguing that it should have consulted specialist family mediators rather than ignoring them in favour of persons or organisations where there are conflicting agendas, such as solicitor mediators.

He said this will lead to specialist expertise being lost countrywide.

"It is my belief that there will be a large fall-off in family mediation referrals for those eligible under legal aid to seek a mediator over the next period of time, say up to the end of the year."

Moving the helpline will, in Lyon's opinion, also lead to further claims of difficulty in finding a mediator and an additional slowdown of family mediation take-up, along with an increase in pressure on the courts with attendant costs and a diminishing incentive to train mediators.

"I believe that the effect will not only be detrimental to the public but will also cause a large contraction in the family mediation profession, which will be irreparable in the longer term," said Lyons.

"The Legal Services Commission has already had a fall-off in family mediation of about 50 per cent between April 2013 to the end of 2013 through knocking out payment for willingness cases and changes over domestic violence and stopping solicitors getting legal aid for clients.

"There is going to be a catastrophic fall-off of mediation in the next few months if they don't get the helpline on the Ministry of Justice website immediately. The ministry have sent through an SOS to us which said that they realise they have made a serious mistake last year," he warned.

Admin error

Lyons believes that this drop in mediation is set to continue and expects a further 50 per cent fall in the next few months. "This is simply because of an administrative error and non-consultation and handing over the helpline to the FMC who are not equipped to use it.

"I find it hard to believe that the closing of the Ministry of Justice helpline was designed to reduce family mediation still further. I think someone thought that if it was handed over to the FMC, with a funding payment, the FMC would grab the opportunity with both hands.

"However, as I understand it, they simply cannot work that fast and have a chequered history. We at Family First have lost a valuable referral source and will struggle to provide an overloaded person at FMC to restore our place in front of a puzzled public who were used to phoning the Ministry of Justice."

He continued: "This is going to cause havoc. They should have taken it steady and not handed it over to an organisation that can't manage. One of my mediators has written to the FMC asking them to put the helpline on their website. They have come back and told us to write to our lead organisation, the College of Mediators, and have them communicate with the FMC. The whole thing is an administrative nightmare."

Not only is public access to mediation at risk but so is Lyons' business. "We are on block grants on our work," he admitted. "I am going to have to phone the Legal Services Commission and ask them to reduce by a half what they are paying me monthly. I can't take money from them now and in six months' time return a huge sum to them."

Also see Mediation rates plummet despite government intentions 

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Marriage & Civil partnership