Free Family days out in Hertfordshire

The school summer holidays are a few days away. At Focus Mediation, we appreciate entertaining the children over the summer can seriously stretch family finances. Days out don’t have to cost a fortune to be entertaining and memorable though. Sara Stoner, Lawyer mediator at our Potters Bar and St Albans office, has compiled a list of some of her children’s favourite free days out. “After some family days out I have felt like I have spent a small fortune. However, some of the best days out with my children have been free and very simple. Visiting large open spaces and bringing a picnic, football and friends for them to run around with, has created some very happy memories. My favourite days involve joining in with the children’s games and then watching them play. My top tip is to buy a cheap foldable chair and watch the children in comfort! Now that does make me sound old, doesn’t it?”

Free Entry

  • Stanborough Park Activity Centre, Stanborough Road, Welwyn Garden City, Herts, AL8 6DF. Whilst there are some paid for attractions within the park, entry is free and there are plenty of open spaces and a stream for paddling in. Bring towels and water proof shoes. Dogs allowed. It’s website says the park includes, Fishing, Nature Trails, Children’s Play Area, Water sports Activity Centre, Rowing Boats, Pedal Boats & Water Walkers, Model Boating Lake, Terranova Restaurant (south side), Stanborough Coffee Shop (south side), Kiosk providing drinks and snack (north side only), Bouncy Castles and Healthy Walks’.

http://www.finesseleisure.com/parks/stanborough-park

  • Rye Meads Nature Reserve, Rye Road Stanstead Abbotts Hertfordshire, Stanstead Abbots SG12 8JS

The RSPB website describes the nature reserve as;

A great family trip; visit this delightful wetland reserve beside the River Lee. Rye Meads is a favourite with walkers, birdwatchers and photographers too. There are wheelchair-friendly trails, and 10 hides (come just to see the amazing murals!) look out over the reed beds, wet meadows, open water and artificial sandbanks, which are a great place to spot the blue flash of a kingfisher.’

Read more at; http://www.hertswildlifetrust.org.uk/reserves/rye-meads

  • Tring Natural History Museum, The Walter Rothschild Building, Akeman Street, Tring, HP23 6AP

Explore the museum which houses one of the largest collections of stuffed mammals, birds, reptiles and insects in the United Kingdom. There is a drop-in session for toddlers and group sessions for children to explore natural history in the grounds of the museum.

Discover more at; http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit/tring.html

  • Lee Valley Regional Parks

10,000 acres to explore. Walking and cycle paths are surrounded by nature. Explore and discover new sights on each visit. Not to be missed; Amwell Nature Reserve (SG12 9SN), Stanstead Innings (SG12 8HL), Flen Fabo and Dobbs weir (CM19 5EX) and River Lee Country Park   (EN10 6LQ). Children are fascinated by the colourful barges moored along the canal and they may even get the opportunity to help open a canal lock.

This year Lee Valley Parks are marking their 50th Anniversary. There are lots of family events planned for the summer holidays. The website lists routes for popular walks. My children’s favourite is the Artworks Route number three, as the giant wooden chair is located on this route.  Lee Valley Farm isn’t free, but at £16 per person for entry for the whole summer, it may be worth the investment.  The farm has many summer activities planned. Visit the Lea Valley White Water Centre. Entry is free and you can watch the white water rafting. There is a free large sand pit for children to play in. The centre has a great atmosphere and you may even catch a glimpse of an Olympian training! https://www.visitleevalley.org.uk/, https://www.lvfarms.co.uk/visit, https://www.gowhitewater.co.uk/visitor-info.

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The giant wooden chair; Artworks Route number three
  • Fairland Valley Park, Six Hills Way, Stevenage, Herts, SG2 0BL.

120 acres of Parklands with 4 linked lakes. Plenty of free fun for children including; two well equipped children’s play areas, splash park, (bring swim wear, water guns, buckets…), woodlands, sailing centre and cafe.

http://www.stevenage.gov.uk/about-stevenage/fairlands-valley-park/

Survival of the Fittest: Interpersonal skills and communication:

I recently attended a three day conference which looked at attachment, neuroscience and the effects of stress and trauma on a person’s ability to communicate.

One of the key messages of the conference reminded me a lot about the role of a good mediator.

The first speaker, a psychologist and neuroscience researcher called Louis Cozolino told us about the neuroscience of interpersonal relationships.

Louis drew our attention to the gaps between neurons called synapses. These gaps are not empty spaces. They are filled with a variety of chemical gasses which are busy carrying out complicated interactions which result in ’synaptic transmission’. This synaptic transmission stimulates neurons to grow, to survive and to be effected by that experience.

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Aboutmodafinil.com Picture by Allan Ajifo

Louis then said that social communication is the same. It takes place in the gaps between us; the social synapses: a smile, a wave, eye contact, body language. These all transmit messages via the gap between people. These messages are received by our senses and translated into electrical and chemical signals within our nervous system. Causing us to be able to engage, converse, think, work things through. Or alternatively to panic, shut down, retreat.

So, you can start feeling really terrible really quickly if the social interaction is not good.

A good mediator can ‘rescue the dynamic’ by communicating across the synapses to regulate the behaviour of the other person. By modelling a certain behaviour and letting the mirror neurons do the rest, the mediator can become an ‘amygdala whisperer’, bringing an element of calm to fraught people and situations.

A good mediator will be aware of the effect of the social communication that he or she models and brings into the room.  Where the people in the room are on a high state of alert, prepared to wrestle over children/finances, the mediator can be steady, balanced and they can listen in a consistent and assured way, letting the people in the room know ‘ it is OK. You will be heard.’

Try it at home. When you partner, daughter, friend turns up enraged, anxious, stressed out, try using the social synapses to bounce some positive messages through. Really listen to what they say. Reflect back what they have said calmly and in a balanced and measured way. You may be surprised at the change as you become the amygdala whisperer. Soothing and helping them to regain their balance.

Another speaker quoted, an evolutionary biologist and genetesist called Theodosius Dobzhansky who said: ’the fittest may also be the gentlest because survival often requires mutual help and cooperation.‘

Food for neuro-thought!

 

“Power parting”

According to a certain magazine, the divorce euphemism ‘conscious uncoupling’, made popular by actor Gwynneth Paltrow during her separation from musician Chris Martin, has been cast aside by today’s disengaging celebrity couples in favour of the more dynamic ‘power parting’.  Over here in reality, the leader of our crumbling family courts system has proposed a similar notion to help stop the family justice system’s continuing slide into overburdened chaos.

Sir James Munby, the President of the Family Division of the courts in England & Wales, has written that he would like to see a swift administrative split between the process of divorce and the process of making a financial claim after divorce.  He indicates that he feels the government’s centralisation of divorce processing has led to significant problems with the number and allocation of finance and property disputes, and as a result the administrative and practical burden on the family courts has increased at a time when the system is already stretched.

Sir James would also like to see the family financial court forms and processes simplified, so no matter what kind of application someone needs to make in law, there’s one form and one procedure. As the courts are inundated with a flood of people seeking complicated financial orders without legal advice or assistance, simplifying the process will mean less time is taken in court amending application forms, drawing out the specific problems needing solutions, and explaining in detail what those solutions might be.  He would like to see a network of expert financial remedies courts set up to deal with relationship-based money claims.

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These proposals make good sense. However, this is all tinkering around the edges of a fractured system.  We are in a position where financial claims after divorce and separation are taking many months to get to a first directions appointment, increasing costs exponentially for those with lawyers, and exacerbating pressure and stress for everyone involved – including, in many cases, for children.

Mediation is also unquestionably a tough process, but it provides a sensible and practical alternative to court for former partners who need to sort out what happens next in financial and property terms.  Rather than waiting for months to start to get things sorted out, you can get an appointment in the next couple of weeks and start making decisions that will move you toward resolution.  Rather that spending money on solicitors’ letters to your ex, you can spend it on using your solicitors to support the mediation process when you choose: to ensure you know what’s in your interests and what’s fair, and to assist you in making your own decisions. You remain in control in mediation, in contrast to a court process that can make you feel that everything is sliding away from you.  An impartial and specially-trained third party mediator can help you talk together with your ex in a businesslike way, to find solutions that are fair and work for both of you and any children.

If you don’t fancy court proceedings to sort things out with your ex – and few people do, knowing the current constraints of and pressures on the system – remember, you have choices. Mediation with a specialist lawyer mediator who understands law and finance, and can give you sensible information to help you make the decisions that are right for you, really is worth investigating.

A Safe Place to Talk?

Has talking to each other become impossible? Are the things you’ve got to sort out too difficult? Does it feel as if there’s a brick wall between you that you can’t bring down?

Mediation offers a safe, neutral environment in which you can tackle your impossible problems. The kids. The money. Where you are each going to live.

The mediator structures your conversation, sets ground rules so that no-one feels put down by the other one, makes sure you each say what is on your mind, and – critically – makes sure the other person has heard and understood it.

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Focus mediators are trained and practised in addressing any power imbalances. They are completely neutral: they don’t take sides. Most importantly, they are non-judgemental. Nothing shocks them. The mediator keeps you focussed on the plans you need to make for your future, rather than dwelling on the past. She uses her wealth of experience to help you both knock down that wall and build a future.

However, this ideal scenario can be knocked for six if a couple comes to mediation intent on playing out their battles in front of an audience. Mediators can help people for whom talking has become difficult, but they will find it nigh-on impossible to help people who insist on dominating the process, no matter how many times the mediator repeats the ground rules of ‘no shouting, no interrupting, no threatening, no undermining’.

Mediation can only help those who want it to work. Could this be you? You would come for an individual meeting with the mediator to start with, so she can hear about your personal circumstances and your objectives. Then you have joint sessions with your ex-partner, where the mediator helps you discuss your issues and (we hope!) brings you to a conclusion which she will write up for you.

If you have been talking about the children, the document she writes will be a Parenting Plan. This is a voluntary set of proposals that does not need ratification by the court; the hope is that, because you have both agreed the arrangements, you will stick to them. However, it is possible to ask for an “open” Parenting Plan which you could then file at court and ask the Judge to seal it. Not all courts will do this, but some people feel it is a step they want to try.

If you have been discussing finances, the mediator will record your figures in an Open Financial Statement and your agreement in a Memorandum of Understanding, which the lawyers will turn into a Consent Order.

This is where your lawyers are invaluable: before your divorce is made final, there has to be an Order recording your financial settlement, and the mediator cannot produce that. The beauty of presenting the lawyers with a Memorandum of Understanding from the mediator is that it cuts out further correspondence and therefore reduces costs.

Whatever the work, you can be sure the mediator will not take sides, will not judge anyone’s behaviour and will focus you on constructive discussion.  It might be just what you need.

Welcome Failure – an Essential Ingredient of Success!

 

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Successful people are usually well acquainted with failure. This is simply because successful people are triers, experimenters, optimists and they don’t give up easily. They’re not afraid of being first, of falling flat on their faces, making people laugh or crow. It might just work and that’s enough to get us going and keep us going.

Swept along by an idea, we become excited, enthusiastic and before we know it we have jumped. We have embarked on whatever seemingly madcap scheme we are convinced is brilliant.

Our friends and family may roll their eyes, smile at us fondly, get exasperated, infuriated or plain bored. ‘Oh, she’s off again, fasten your seat belts!’

Yet the world needs agents for change, otherwise nothing improves, nothing is learned – we stultify. So here are my tips for getting over your fear of failure and making your (little or big) mark on the world:

  1. Give it a go! You have a dream, an idea, a passion and it might just work – give it a go! Don’t let fear of failure stop you. Nothing ventured nothing gained. Yes, sometimes you’ll fail, it’ll hurt, you may feel silly, but if you never try anything in case you may fail you’ll never succeed either. Success and failure are two sides of the same coin.
  2. If you want your children, friends and work colleagues to succeed – then you must make it safe to fail. Tell them to try, it doesn’t matter. If people are to win it must be safe to lose.
  3. Competition is tough. There’s often someone better, faster, cleverer, but that doesn’t detract from the satisfaction of your personal best. The satisfaction of just having climbed Everest is amazing. However, even if you had to stop 1000 metres from the summit because you had altitude sickness – you have still climbed Everest. You have had that experience and that is not failure.
  4. Laugh! Laugh lots, at yourself, your weaknesses and failures. If you laugh it doesn’t hurt so much and guess what? Other people don’t laugh at you. You may think they will, but they won’t. They secretly admire your courage and they won’t laugh, I promise.
  5. You fear snide comments, ridicule and loss of face. I know this is tough, you’d feel diminished, humiliated, embarrassed and stupid. Well don’t! Such behaviour says far more about the attacker than it does about you. People hearing them will not like them, they will fear and avoid them. The sympathy will be with you.
  6. Everyone loves a down-to-earth trier. Especially us Brits! Think Eddie the Eagle, or the cheers for the man who comes last in the marathon. It’s the taking part, the massive effort we admire. As for failure, we all fear it and admire those who brave it to try.
  7. Detach your sense of identity from your endeavour. Then you can give something your all and not be extinguished if you fail. You have tried your best and failed by whatever measure you were using. You’re still a brave, strong, positive power in the world. That gets a big tick and is not a failure of you. Your failed endeavour is just something you tried that didn’t work out.

Ok so I expect you’re wondering in what ways I have tried and failed. You want me to come clean so you can judge by what authority and personal knowledge I can say success and failure are two sides of the same coin. I should own up to my own successes and failures, and not mind too much if you point and laugh. Well actually I don’t. Mind, I mean.

I suppose it has been said by others that I’m a successful family lawyer and mediator, so I should not feel too squeamish about repeating that (though I do, feel squeamish that is). Several years ago, I realised family law could do with some improvement, so in the 1990s I became a mediator, set up Focus Mediation in 1999, which has grown and grown so that my main work has become mediation.

It turned out that it was the right decision and a big success for me – despite all those people who told me mediation would never catch on and was a waste of time. I followed my heart and ignored them. If I didn’t try I wouldn’t know would I?

I wrote a novel about one family’s divorce. By any normal external measures such as how many  books has it sold, it has failed, because it hasn’t sold many copies really and has not yet been turned into a film (Yes, I know, in my dreams). However, many people have read it and raved about it and some clients found their way to me because of it.

My understanding of the psychology of family break-down and how best to manage it has grown. Can you hear how I’m thinking about this? By external book-world measures I have failed – I have not got a best-seller on my hands, but all is not lost, some good has definitely come of it.

Then there was my campaign on Change.org. It called for the court rule that says costs must be proportionate to the value of cases to be made to work – sadly this rule is often ignored. As a result we end up with cases like the dispute over £4,000 worth of drain repairs which ran up £300,000 of legal costs.

I was asking for a compulsory referral point to mediation when legal costs reach 20% of case value – to help people do a deal without having to establish the evidence, the truth, the legalities or the rights and wrongs.

This campaign didn’t attract the attention I was hoping for despite being featured on several media. It fascinates me how often the obvious and commonsensical falls on deaf ears. But, despite this, I’m right out there in front shouting ‘It’s glaring – just give it a go, sometime it’s worth upsetting the status quo. Anyway it can’t succeed if you don’t try it – and failure is always an option when you try something new.”

Relationships: how to build successful, lasting connections

Life really is all about human connections; forming them, maintaining them, ending or losing them. Personal connections give meaning and purpose to our lives. For some, making and keeping connections comes far more naturally than it does for others. But why is this? It’s easier to understand in relation to extremes of personality, i.e. very shy or gregarious people. But why do some people appear to form friendships and relationships with ease and for others their relationships are plagued with insecurities and self doubt? A friend sent me a link to a fascinating Ted Talk; The Power of Vulnerability by Brené Brown.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCvmsMzlF7o

Brené Brown is a researcher and therapist who set out to research human connections. Brené collates people’s experiences, tries to make sense of them and then shares them with a wider audience. She says that the ability to feel connected is a neurobiological need in all of us and it’s fundamentally why we are here. She began her research by asking people about love, belonging and connections. However, when she asked people about love they told her about their heartbreak, when she asked about belonging they told her excruciating stories about being excluded and when asked about connection, they told her about their experiences of disconnection.

She began to identify time and time again that something unravelled or prevented these connection. She identified that this saboteur was ‘shame’ and that the more difficulty people have in articulating their feelings of shame, the more likely they feel shame very deeply. To never experience shame would mean a person is likely to be defined as a sociopath. We have all felt at one time or another that we have not been ‘worthy’ or ‘good enough’. She said this was often underpinned by an excruciating level of vulnerability. To make a true connection with another person we have to be ‘seen’. We have to expose ourselves and be open and honest. She decided to spend the next year deconstructing shame and vulnerability.

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Self-confidence, insecurity and their impact on relations

However it took her 6 years to get to grips with her research and make sense of people’s experiences. With volumes of stories and data, she felt that she now understood shame and vulnerability and that it came down to this; some people feel worthy of love and friendship and some don’t. The worthy feel like they belong. Then there are others who struggle to feel good enough and worthy enough of love and belonging. That was the major difference between the two groups. She says in essence, what keeps some out of connection is their fear that they aren’t worthy of connection.

So what did she find that ‘worthy’ people have in common? She says people with a deep sense of worth are a ‘wholehearted’ type of person. They have the courage to be imperfect, to believe that who they are, warts and all, is good enough. They have compassion for themselves; their inner voice is kind and not overtly critical. They are then able to extend that compassion to others as they have initially applied it to themselves. This reminded me of the analogy of a parent in an aeroplane cabin losing oxygen. To help their children they must first help themselves by ensuring they can breathe and function; they must prioritise placing the oxygen mask on themselves. We can’t be authentically kind to others if we don’t first show compassion to ourselves.

Making strong and lasting connections

To make strong and lasting connections we have to let go of what we think we should be and embrace what we are. Without this level of truthfulness, positive connection can not exist. The ‘worthy’ people aren’t afraid to embrace their vulnerability – they feel it is a necessary part of life. The part I found the most revealing is that the group who struggled with a sense of self worth spoke about vulnerability in terms of it being excruciating and painful. Those who felt worthy of connection saw vulnerability as a necessary part of connection. They were able to reach out to others and make themselves vulnerable – they could initiate conversation with a stranger not knowing for sure the other person’s response, they could ask someone on a date without being certain that the person would say yes.

They recognised the need to lay themselves open in order to receive something back that was worth the risk. They felt it was fundamental to human interaction to be vulnerable; to give their heart to another not knowing if it would be nurtured. Brené’s training had taught her to control and predict. Her research had unearthed the polar opposite. To make authentic connections we can’t control and predict; we must be free to live a life with openness and vulnerability. Brené found it hard to accept that the birthplace of happiness and creativity lay in embracing our own vulnerability.

Feeling vulnerable

Many of us numb our vulnerability. We live in a vulnerable world and feel we need to protect ourselves; laying our souls bare does not feel the way to do that. So as a society we try and numb fear, shame, grief, hurt etc. by self medicating. We are a nation of over eaters, over spenders, binge drinkers and drug takers. We protect ourselves by not revealing our true selves to others. We put up barriers and defences. However, we can’t choose what emotions to numb and inadvertently we also numb our capacity for joy and happiness. It’s a vicious cycle. We then lack purpose and feel vulnerable and the numbing cycle begins again.

She says to combat this we strive for the following;

  • We make the uncertain certain. There’s no room for discussion; I’m right, you are wrong! I have to be right; I’m trying to survive here! It becomes vital. There’s no discussion and the more frightened we become the more important it is to be certain.
  • We pretend that what we do doesn’t have an affect on people and have an impact on their lives, both positive and negative.
  • We blame; she defines blaming as a way to discharge pain and discomfort.

Accepting our flaws

How do we combat this? What’s the path to feeling secure and comfortable in our own skin? How can we feel worthy of the connections that many of us crave but self sabotage? Brené says we must embrace our vulnerability and let our true selves be seen. We must show love and compassion; even though there’s no guarantee of reciprocation. To stop and feel grateful for the good times, instead of fearing they will end or something or someone will stop you feeling that way. Finally, the most important part is to believe we are enough. If we truly believe we are enough then we treat ourselves and others around us with kindness and compassion.

Why mediation is effective in solving conflict

As a Family mediator I work with divorcing and separating couples every day. They are suffering a huge trauma akin to bereavement. They are hurting and often feel rejected by their ex-partner. They may try to rationalise why their relationship broke down and why their partner stopped finding them ‘worthy’ of their love and compassion. They feel they have been wounded and must protect themselves. The last thing they feel capable of doing at this time is to show vulnerability as they fear it is a sign of weakness. They can not see how they can trust their ex with that level of honesty.

I am not a therapist. It is not my role to explore in detail these emotions. However, what I have found is that mediation sessions can often help people to find purpose again and to individually move forward in a positive way. A colleague once described a mediator’s role in similar terms to these; ‘we help to tease and untangle the entwined roots of previously shared lives, so they can each replant their roots and begin to grow and flourish again’.

Helping litigants stop the blame game

We help people to move away from blaming one another as blame doesn’t help. We don’t take sides and we are completely impartial. Sometimes I feel that the fact I am initially a stranger to my clients is one of my most valuable commodities. They can trust that I have no investment in the decisions they make. My objective is to facilitate positive discussion between them. I help them to communicate and move forward. My job can be the most frustrating and rewarding role in equal measures. Why? Because inevitably if separating couples agree to engage in mediation, they will usually have to face one another and be open and honest. This makes them feel vulnerable.

Mediation saves hurt feelings (and costs)

So people who I know would benefit from mediation walk away and spend thousands upon thousands of pounds in the adversarial court system. It prolongs and intensifies their trauma, can destroy any goodwill or hope of civility and is devastating to children who just want mum and dad to get along. However, when people do engage in mediation and commit to the process, (sadly that’s often after they’ve been through the court system and have experienced first hand how damaging it can be), the results are remarkably positive. Not only do they reach proposals that allow them each move forward, but their communication usually improves, respect for one another can increase and they receive a sense of closure that they might never otherwise find.

If you would like to learn more about mediation please call our accredited  mediators for an informal chat on 01908 410508

A brief history of mediation

Mediation in the UK came to the fore in the 1990s but it has been recognised as a form of Dispute Resolution since ancient civilisation and has developed and evolved over time. The practice of mediation began in Ancient Greece. In Roman times mediators were referred to as mediums, conciliators and interlocutors.

Many philosophers have acknowledged the importance of mediation. For example, Confucius adhered to the concept of ‘harmony and co-operation’ and ‘no litigation’: the need to produce an outcome by negotiation, understanding and agreement, with an emphasis on compromise.

Moreover, this form of conflict resolution has been widely practised and recognised throughout time by Buddhists, Quakers, the Christian church, Judaism, and followers of Islam to name but a few. It has been used to negotiate during wars and diplomatic events.

In the Middle Ages the clergy would mediate between criminals, who had been given sanctuary, and the authorities. More recently, the USA (1947) and the UK (1896) respectively established a Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and passed the UK Conciliation Act to address conflicts in industry. In the 1990s, Australia has used mediation to address future native title rights.

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Today, mediation is practised in several countries/ continents including Europe, China, Japan, Africa, the USA, Asia and Australia. There is a particularly strong mediation ethic and culture in Eastern countries. China, for example, has the largest and most comprehensive mediation system in the world. Its aim is to create order in all areas of life based on its values and traditions.

Mediation and dispute resolution has a place in a variety of  areas where there is conflict including:

Family Life:

Divorce and Separation  

Finances and arrangements for children

Care for the elderly

Probate and Inheritance

The Workplace:

Grievances between employees and/or employers

Commercial:

Contract disputes in business

Landlord and Tenants

Medical negligence

Civil:

Neighbour disputes

Housing Associations

In Schools:

Pupils and their peers and teachers

Through the threads of time mediation and dispute resolution have played an important role in almost every aspect of daily life enduring the test of time and evolving into a modern practice.

Focus Mediation can help you with both Family and Civil mediation. Please call us on 01908 410508 for further information.

Housing in Oxfordshire or: Two into two won’t go!

If you care about the environment and the look of the world we live in, you will be alarmed, to say the least, about the housing developments going on in Oxfordshire.

The city is bulging at the seams. Property is in huge demand, but rental and purchase prices are amongst the highest in the UK; higher even than London, some say. Yet there is a hue and cry going on at the potential use of Green Belt land to build more houses. Green Belt land around the city is largely owned by the Colleges, who are seen as cashing in on developers’ ambitions; but they say they are simply responding philanthropically to the public need for more housing.

Oxford from the airSource:www.ssho.ox.ac.uk

The countryside is under similar threat. Much of West Oxfordshire lies in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB); it is on the edge of the Cotswolds. Surely this should be sacrosanct? AONBs have the same protected status at law as National Parks, like the Lake District. But in fact, WODC is granting planning permission to develop sites sold off by farmers in these beautiful spots, because councils are under huge pressure from the government to meet a massive target of new builds by 2031. The countryside is being irreparably damaged.

In mediation, we hear time and time again that providing two homes for a separating couple with children in or around Oxford is impossible. Purchase prices are exorbitant, rents are too high. The mediator wishes she could wave a magic wand and produce hundreds of shared ownership houses where the deposit is low and the rent affordable. Would these new housing developments provide that? Unlikely. Some developments make a token gesture with a few “affordable” houses, but prices are still way beyond the reach of most folk, especially those involved in a divorce.

A mediator can help, however. She can work through your budgets with you both, so that you can each see what the other person is struggling with, rather than assuming that he/she/ has plenty to spare. And she can think of plans and options that perhaps hadn’t occurred to you that may make living apart possible, despite the housing crisis. Pensions can be brought into the mix, and creative solutions found. Mediation is always worth a try.

Mediation Myths and Reality

As a family mediator, I tend to spend a lot of my time explaining exactly what it is that I don’t do.  So, let’s do this quickly: my job isn’t about getting people back together – that’s couples counselling, or conciliation. It’s not telling people what they should do – as an individual, that’s what you get when you go for legal advice from a barrister or solicitor.  I can’t make anyone do anything – that’s a job for a judge or an arbitrator.  And it’s definitely not about sitting quietly in a room being mindful – that’s meditation!

What I do as a family mediator is help two people who are in the process of separating to work out the best way forward from here, in terms of  making arrangements for their children, housing, money, businesses etc – anything where plans for the future, living apart, need to be made.  But family mediation is not well-understood, so in this blog I thought I’d take a look at some common misconceptions about the process.

There’s a persistent myth that the government now makes all former couples try mediation before they are allowed to go to court about divorce issues. This isn’t true: even if it wanted to, the government couldn’t compel people to come to mediation because mediation is by its very nature voluntary.  Nobody can be forced into it.

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Mediation, CC BY-SA 3.0 NY, Nick Youngson (www.nyphotographic.com)

What is true however, is that before a person can make an application to court about financial or children matters arising from a separation, they have to make an appointment with an accredited (specially-qualified) family mediator for a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (a MIAM).  This appointment takes about 45-60 minutes, and is usually just between mediator and client (although it can involve a former partner by agreement with all involved). It provides some confidential time and space to talk about what is going on, hear about all the different ways that a dispute can be resolved, and make an informed decision about the next step to take – whether it’s to court, to mediation, or another route. There is no pressure to choose mediation at the end of the meeting.

The removal of access to legal aid for family court proceedings, except where there is evidence of abuse or violence, has led to another myth that there is no help available to those on low incomes to work out arrangements on family breakdown.  In fact, many mediators offer mediation free to clients who are eligible for legal aid; even those who are not eligible themselves can access a free individual meeting and first joint mediation session if their former partner meets the criteria.

Another myth is that it’s normal to stay in separate rooms during family mediation, with the mediator walking between the two of you.  Although this is the case for most forms of mediation about business disputes, the usual arrangement in family mediation is for both people and the mediator to be in the same room, unless there’s a particular reason why this shouldn’t happen (perhaps there has been violence, abuse or intimidation). It’s quicker and therefore cheaper if everyone is in the same room, as it is possible to get more done.  The other main reason is because the mediator, and the process itself, encourages people to relate to each other as problem-solvers and co-parents rather than ex-partners – it is easier to make this shift in the same room rather than apart.

Some people think that family mediation is slow.  On the contrary: the great advantages of family mediation are in terms of cost, convenience and speed.  To get arrangements decided by a judge, you might have to wait up to a year or even more from making your court application, and go through other interim hearings before, at which you will both need to be present and over which you will have little control.  Mediation sessions usually take place every three weeks or so, at a significantly lower cost per person than for court representation, and can be arranged to suit your schedule – unlike if you end up in court.

The last myth is that family mediation is suitable for everyone.  Sadly it isn’t. People only come to mediation if they want to sort things out and make a deal – it’s not a process that suits anyone taking a ‘my way or the highway’ approach.  Sometimes too much has gone on in a relationship for there to be any prospect of an agreement, and the court has to be involved from the start; this may be the case, for example, if there are child protection concerns or where there has been serious violence or abuse.  However, mediators are skilled professionals who are used to working with those going through family change, and we do have success in helping people make arrangements that work for them in even very challenging cases that might seem hopeless at first glance.  It can be very empowering to understand that it is still possible to stay in control of what happens after a separation: you don’t need to hand over the power to decide to a judge who doesn’t know you, and doesn’t love your children. A specialist family mediator can help you make your own plans.

If you would like to learn more about mediation, or if you think that it might benefit someone you know, don’t hesitate to contact our accredited mediators on 01908 410508 for an informal chat.

The law aims to be fair for the majority

Sometimes a constellation of circumstances conspire to make the Law seem inexplicable. This is especially the case when someone has behaved badly – or when the law works in such a way that people think it produces an unfair result. BUT it isn’t that simple. Mary Banham-Hall lawyer mediator explains why.

The newspapers have recently reported that Julie Sharp is appealing a court decision to give her husband from whom she’s divorcing £2.7m of her total fortune of £6.9m after 4 years of marriage with no children.  She worked throughout as an energy trader and earned most of the income – and following redundancy her husband project-managed the refurbishment of two houses. His case was for half the increase in the value of assets during their marriage on the basis the ‘matrimonial acquest’ is shared equally, which it usually is.  In a short marriage pre-marital contributions are retained by the spouse they belong to, so long as needs have been catered for – but the increase in assets value during the marriage is halved. In this instance it is rumoured the husband was unfaithful – but the law is well established that the reasons for the divorce are irrelevant, so it may make people think this is very unfair.

Lady-justice-Dublin-L

At the moment in short marriages the following principles apply:

  • reasonable needs should be met, reflecting the length of the marriage and its effect, if any, on the parties – especially the birth of a child
  • this may just involve a sum of money to enable someone to adjust without due hardship to their single-again status
  • Any increase in the value of assets during the marriage is usually shared

These simple enough principles alone cause enough trouble over interpretation – what are reasonable needs? What is a fair sum to enable someone to adjust to the split without undue hardship? What is a short marriage? How much is the matrimonial acquest? Then running through all the legal arguments are the following not-to-be-forgotten factors:

  • What does all this argy-bargy cost in relation to the likely settlement figure? Is it value for money?
  • How much of the argument is related to conflict generated by the break-down of the relationship – and the reasons for that?
  • Is the legal debate an outlet for the parties’ anger and grief and sense of injustice? Might there be a need to ‘win’ especially if you feel you have been done down in some way? Is litigation an appropriate outlet for emotional drivers?

Against this background the Sharp case delivers a less obvious decision to the judge hearing the appeal, which is this:

Either:  Do we keep the certainty we currently have, where the matrimonial acquest is shared – in many if not most cases this will be the fairest result? Certainty on such a common issue means outcomes are clear and there is then less likely to be litigation over who gets what in many cases to come.

Or:  Do we open a Pandora’s Box and tailor judgments more closely to the personal merits of each case, thereby ending up with a range of seemingly incompatible precedents? This latter inevitably leads to lawyers being unable to advise clients with any clarity as to probable outcomes – which in turn leads to a proliferation of court cases based on the merits of this that or the other situation.   Seemingly harsh and ‘unfair’ decisions can be much better for the rest of the population who have disputes – as they know with a degree of clarity what they are going to get and there’s no point in litigating for something unachievable. Sad cases make bad law.  It is this, at the end of the day, which in my view means the Sharp appeal is likely to fail, if a family mediator is allowed to have an opinion on such matters!