COUPLES across Devon who are separating or divorcing are set to benefit from a new Government pledge to fund more free family mediation sessions.

A new announcement by Justice Minister Simon Hughes pledges a free mediation session for couples involved in a separation if just one of them qualifies for legal aid.

The move has been hailed by an Exeter-based national charity as a ‘vital first step’ to unlock an understanding of what family mediation can achieve.

“Whilst legal aid is available for mediation, at present if one of the two people involved doesn’t qualify for legal aid they have to pay,” explains Jane Robey, Chief Executive of National Family Mediation, the largest provider of family mediation in England and Wales.

“This leads to a high proportion refusing to take part, scuppering the prospect of a mediated settlement. As a result, the separation then has to go through a lengthy and confrontational court process, with a final settlement imposed on the family by the court. But the new Government funding could signal a sea change, with the first mediation session free for both people even where just one of them qualifies for legal aid.

“People who are separating sometimes do not fully understand exactly what they are paying for since mediation is usually an unknown quantity, so they are unsure it will work, causing them to be more reluctant still to pay for mediation. Ironically, given people’s initial reluctance to pay the relatively modest costs of mediation, expensive legal fees mean both parties emerge from court far, far worse off than if they had tried to mediate an agreement. “This new funding will help many couples take a vital first step to unlock an understanding of what family mediation can achieve. This has the potential to begin to drive culture change about the way separation is handled. Having had one session of mediation, confidence in the process blooms, with results that are life-changing.

“Family mediation puts families in control of their post-separation future instead of handing it over to clogged family courts. It’s a much quicker, less confrontational and better value way of settling family breakdown than heading off to court.

“Divorcing or separating is never easy for anyone but people in that situation owe it to themselves and, more importantly, to their children to manage the process in the best way possible. Trying mediation is the right step to securing a brighter future.”