Monthly Archives: March 2017

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.

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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!

 

Where can we go to sort out our divorce and separation? Who will help us – how?

‘We live miles away from each other on opposite sides of London- how do we decide who can help us?  Where should we go?’

First, it makes sense to see a mediator first – as they can help you get your bearings, give you both vital legal information and help you agree what to do. Also, if you did need to go to court you have to see a mediator first anyway – so best start there.

The first step in finding a mediator is working out what will work for you. In London it is quite common for separating ex partners to move to new areas where property is cheaper to rent or to buy. Some people even return to their parent’s home while they work out the next step. Logistics can be tricky.

So where should you meet in mediation? Near your workplace? Or your old home? Or where you are currently living?  A location with good transport connections for both you and your ex makes sense – it may involve you both in travelling out of your local area to mediate, so long as you can get there easily, which is the point really.

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The benefits of mediating with Focus Mediation at Euston?

  • You show that you are equally committed to mediation, by coming to neutral territory. You break familiar patterns: “It’s always me who makes the effort! I always compromise! He/she is so inflexible!”
  • Easy travel connections means easy access to the help you need

Call Focus Mediation London to discuss how we can offer a safe central meeting space for clients. Our main meeting rooms are right in front of Euston station, a stone’s throw away from the Circle, Metropolitan, Hammersmith, City, Victoria and Northern Lines and a multiplicity of railway connections. East London is 20 minutes away by train. And anyone travelling in or out of King’s Cross or St Pancras has a short walk to reach us.

Our professionally trained mediators can support you both and help you to have those difficult conversations that you must have to agree a divorce or separation settlement, sort out your kids and anything and everything else needed to enable you to move on with your lives.

Additionally we have access to a network of meeting spaces across London for our one day mediation meetings. Want it sorted fast? Then call us for more information on 0203 137 2670.