Ministers promote mediation to avert costly legal disputes

·3-min read
Divorce - Getty Images
Divorce - Getty Images

Divorcing couples and other people embroiled in civil disputes could get vouchers for mediation in a bid to end bitter courtroom battles.

Robert Buckland, the Justice Secretary, will Tuesday launch a call for evidence for ways to settle disputes without the participants having to go through lengthy and costly court cases.

He wants more individuals, families and businesses to use either trained mediators to help them resolve their differences or online arbitration where they avoid face-to-face contact that can often antagonise the situation.

One option is already being tested for divorcing couples, in which they get taxpayer-funded vouchers to pay for mediation to help agree custody and contact with their children, share out their assets and money, and settle any maintenance arrangements.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has set aside £1 million for up to 2,000 couples to get mediation in a bid to settle disputes without further trauma to them and their families and the expense of lengthy court action.

Robert Buckland said: “We want the public, families and businesses to be able to resolve disputes easily and with as little stress as possible – avoiding often lengthy and costly court battles.

“That is why I am delighted to launch this important call for evidence which will help shape our plans to harness new technologies and ensure more people can get resolutions in ways that work for them.”

It could start with minor civil arguments over an eBay sale of a dud second hand car, where an online mediation could see the seller refund the buyer, and the buyer agree to erase their negative feedback from the seller’s profile.

But it could also extend to multi-million pound commercial civil battles between companies or disputes over an inheritance.

One case, cited by the MoJ, involved two sisters in a row over what to do with their mother’s £1 million flat left to them in her will. One wanted to sell it, the other preferred to rent it out. Neither saw eye to eye, with mutual mistrust meaning face-to-face mediation risked increasing tensions.

A qualified mediator met each sister separately before settling the dispute with one of the sisters paying the other half of the value of the flat.

Research by the Family Mediation Council suggested more than 70 per cent of those using mediation services will resolve their issues outside of a courtroom.

In 2019, only three per cent of the two million civil proceedings issued went to trial, showing the vast majority of claims can be resolved without the need for a judgment.

Lord Wolfson, Justice Minister, said: “With nearly 30 years of experience as a commercial lawyer, I know the benefits of finding amicable agreements early to help parties move on constructively. Too often the courts aren’t the best means for reaching such outcomes.”

Proposed reforms will be set out once evidence has been gathered from judges, lawyers, mediators, academics and the advice sector. Litigation will remain as an option open to everyone, and ministers accept some cases will inevitably require people to go to court.

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