Tag Archives: co-habitation

Marrying the Same Person after Divorcing them

Tech billionaire Elon Musk remarried wife Tallulah Riley. Their first marriage was in  2010, they divorced in 2012, but then re married in. July 2013, then filed a second divorce at the end 2013. Liz Taylor, Pamela Anderson and Mel Griffith, all remarried their former spouses. Why on earth do people do this?

01_R04ELS_1120075kWell, perhaps it isn’t as mad as it sounds. Although these celebrity remarriages usually ended in a second divorce it isn’t always the case. Apparently research into 1000 couples found 72% of remarriages were successful. It seems that the power of their shared history, children and lives carried a lot of weight. Many regret their divorce and are brave enough to try and put things right, try and put the clock back. This is hard, as it is a very public admission of a very serious mistake, but the stakes are high and it is well worth facing down the comments and criticism to try and live the right life and put right a big mistake, if you’ve made one.

As a mediator I sometimes get the chance at the end of a mediation, to ask clients I have got close to if they could go back in life, would they change anything?  This is especially interesting where people are divorcing for a second or subsequent time, as they have often considerable experiential insight into their situation. What they often say is they regret their first divorce most. They wish they had worked much harder at their first marriage. Some men especially think they divorced and remarried younger women very like their first wives and wish they had stayed put.

The biggest problem is behaving rationally when in the throws of the grip of a passionate affair. It seems inconceivable that it will end or there would be any way back to their old relationship. Also once everyone knows what has happened there is a weight of expectation that the marriage is over and will end. Countering this expectation and the powerful emotions of the new relationship becomes almost impossible, even if at some level there are doubts, regrets and a feeling it shouldn’t have happened. Perhaps we are too quick to be off with the old and on with the new. Perhaps we should hesitate more and take much more time before divorcing. The present divorce laws make it worse. The process requires someone to be at fault, to get a divorce in under two years. Supposing we stopped all that and made the process administrative, something that takes place over time. The questions might involve asking each person if they are certain the relationship is over or might be saved. It might help pick up those cases where actually the relationship isn’t over at all. That would be worth some effort.

Mediation: Oxford Divorce Stress Buster

Oxford house prices were quoted in the Oxford Times recently as the highest in the UK apart from London. This places extra stress on separating couples who now need two places to live instead of one, but it doesn’t look affordable

January and February are tough months for everybody. They’re especially tough if you have just worked through a strained Christmas and decided that you can’t hold your marriage together any longer: you’ve decided to separate. The year ahead looks impossible. Were will you each live? How will you share the children? Talking has become dangerous. Rows erupt, important issues are no-go areas, communication is at an all-time low, along with your spirits.

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Mediation with Focus Mediation in Oxford is designed to cope with all this stress. It is run by Caroline Friend, who lives near Oxford, she understands Oxford problems and has helped many local people with all the same issues you are now facing. You might do well to stand on the shoulders of those who have gone this way before you.

You start by coming to a MIAM: a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting. This is time spent alone with your Focus mediator, who will listen to your story and then explain the process of divorce and of how mediation works in detail. Then the joint sessions start, spaced to suit you, your timetables and your budgets. Mediation gives you a safe, neutral environment in which you can tackle your impossible problems.

Sally thought she and Jo were putting their marriage back on track, and was deeply shocked when Jo chose the week before Christmas to announce he was filing for divorce. The next two weeks were grim: you could cut the atmosphere at home with a knife. However, once the mediator had seen them both, they could get a handle on what they needed to do: a session looking at their income and outgoings, so as to work out what rent Jo could afford, and time spent working out a child-care pattern that both parents felt comfortable with: it wasn’t ideal – not seeing your children every day will never be that – but it respected the children’s needs and gave both parents plenty of time with them. All that was completed in two weeks and reduced the stress considerably.

A couple more sessions dealt with the bigger picture of the house and how to share the equity in it. The mediator encouraged both parents to put the children’s stability first, and helped them take difficult decisions in the light of current court practice. She helped them identify any maintenance that would be appropriate, and dealt with any disparity in their pensions. Even more importantly, they established ways of communicating with each other to make arrangements for the children without quarrelling.

Focus Mediation is there to help. It might make all the difference to your new year.

Separated but still living under the same roof? A Classic London Problem

Separating couples want to separate – obvious you may well say, but not always possible in the fantastically highly priced housing bubble which London has become. Separation gives you breathing space whilst you consider longer term options and would reduce the tension following relationship break down. Unfortunately where the costs of renting a second property are as high as they are in London, then this can be completely impossible.

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Increasing numbers of couples are forced to remain in the family home together after their relationship has broken down – often for a considerable period of time. This can be excruciating for them and their children, if they are caught in the crossfire.

This problem is particularly acute in London where, as reported in the Daily Mail recently, London rents are so high in some areas that it would be infinitely cheaper to rent in Barcelona and commute to London for work! The Mail article detailed the situation faced by one Londoner Mr Cookney trying to rent in North West London

“A one-bedroom flat in West Hampstead would cost around £1,505 a month, according to Zoopla.

He then added in council tax at approximately £75 and a zone 1-2 travelcard to get to his job in the City, which costs £116.80, making a total of £1,697.

Mr Cookney said: ‘I chose West Hampstead because I know and like the area, and it doesn’t seem a stretch to suggest that a young professional may afford to live there’

He then compared the prices to Barcelona where a three-bedroom flat, with three balconies, a stone’s throw away from the metro, in the ‘nice and safe’ area of Les Corts costs £580 per month”

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2477291/London-rents-high-cheaper-live-BARCELONA-commute-heres-.html#ixzz3OXNvLsZW

This may seem an extreme example but highlights the exceptionally high cost of living in London.

If following separation you need to remain in London for work then there may be no other option than continuing to live under the same roof until you can find a longer term solution, if there is one.

Focus Mediation has an office at Euston, (The Office Group, 1 Euston Square, 40 Melton Street, Euston NW1 2FD). Our mediators are experienced in helping couples faced with this type of problem after their relationship has ended. We will work with you during this time, not only to look at options for rehousing the family in two homes, but also to work out an agreed set of ground rules on how to behave towards each to reduce tensions, whilst you work together in mediation to reach a settlement. This can be done at a pace which suits you. Where you have children and both accept that your relationship is over then resolving matters quickly by agreement is essential in ensuring you both are able to move forward in separate homes and lives.

Bloody mindedness

When people are hurt, they often like to hurt back.

An eye for and eye, a tooth for a tooth and all that. If s/he left me to go off with that bastard/bitch, they must suffer for it. They will suffer, I’ll make sure of it, even if I lose out too, it will be worth it!  Does anyone ever say that in mediation? Rarely if ever, but they may think it and take up inexplicable negotiating positions or prolong arguments over nothing. They can be very bloody minded over sorting the simplest things out. There are reasons for this, such as they cannot let go of the relationship, cannot leave the connection with their ex, they are desperate to ‘win’ so have to keep fighting, they want to have the ‘last word’ and/or their fury fuels the conflict and then the conflict finds an outlet in:

  • Quarrelsome solicitors’ letters setting out endless arguments about anything and everything, much of may be it immaterial to settling the important issues like who gets the house or is it sold, what happens about pensions and the maintenance? If people fight over silly things you know you are in trouble, so the food mixer or kettle is an indication they are dredging the bottom of the barrel and this is caused by their feelings, not the importance of the bottom of the barrel.
  • Putting forward extremely unfair positions that would make the other person lose out massively (punishment, ‘make them suffer’)
  • And worst of all, arguing through the children, using them as weapons and instruments of revenge, getting them ‘onside’ and trying to turn them against their other parent.
"Divorce Your Loved One With Dignity" Bob Willoughby © , Frank Sinatra, on the Warner Brothers set of Marriage On The Rocks, 1965

Bob Willoughby © Frank Sinatra, on the Warner Brothers set of Marriage On The Rocks, 1965

On the surface you have an argument, often translated into a legal narrative of this statute and these cases, versus a countering position and cases. That is the lawyers’ attempts to try and reduce the fighting into something logical, with rational arguments that can be explained and reasoned. Mostly the parties don’t give a damn about all that, what they mind about is getting back at the bastard/ bitch who has ruined their life. This isn’t every case by any means, but it is common enough to be classified as a type of case I think of as ‘Bloodymindedness’.

If you know someone who has embarked on a divorce in this manner and you really care about them, you won’t simply listen to their rantings, you’ll gently question some of their statements and turn some of their thoughts on their head. For example, you might ask what the costs of fighting have been so far and talk about the type of holiday, car or suchlike they could have bought for that instead. If they blame it all on the other person, you might ask them what they did to try to change the dynamic. If they have tried, and many will have done, you might observe it is very difficult to get two warring people to make peace simultaneously, as they often both try, but at different times and get a bad response.

The beauty of mediating your settlement, arrangements for the children, divorce, whatever, is you go off from your first session together with a shared action-plan and joint commitment to changing boundaries and behaving differently. You can develop functional separated boundaries, with some rules you put in place about what ever is causing difficulty. Solicitors’ letters will not accomplish that. Mediation can turn things around and put you on a better path, people need to understand about that possibility, because it is game changing, and thank goodness for it.

Think of it as an escape hatch from misery for families who are splitting up.

Financial Settlements on Family Breakdown – How to Get it Done.

Mediators and lawyers have their own role to play in helping you to reach decisions following on from your separation.  Most of the hard work is done by you both during the mediation sessions.  The two of you will discuss the issues that need to be resolved, with the help of the mediator.  The mediator is there to help you to communicate in a constructive way while your respective lawyers will help you individually by advising you about the proposals.   They can then translate the settlement proposals into a legally binding agreement or submit it to the court for the court’s approval.

An out of court settlement is something you often hear about.  It is a settlement that is often reached within the mediation process.  It can then be endorsed and approved by the court to make it legally binding.

two mannequins fighting over 100 dollars

For a financial settlement to be binding it is important that both of you disclose to each other your respective financial positions.   This would be the same whether your settlement was reached through mediation, through solicitors or through court.  You cannot come to an agreement if you don’t know what the assets and incomes are.  This process is called full financial disclosure.  You are then able to have discussions and negotiate a settlement   Even in court most settlements are reached through discussion and negotiation rather than the Judge making your decisions for you.  In mediation, you can go straight to those discussions after the financial disclosure stage, without waiting for the court to give you appointments and paying for costly court fees, and solicitors’ and barristers’ costs.

Just because you and your ex can’t communicate doesn’t mean that you have to go to court.  Mediation can help you look at how your relationship can be improved to enable you to resolve your issues, particularly communication.  You can become more co-operative and make your own decisions together.  The benefit of mediation is that it is the two of you who will be making the decisions about you and your children, rather than having a Judge decide what is best for your future.

Do you think that you will be better able to communicate if you have solicitors writing letters between you?  No, I suspect not too.  Often what you said and what you meant can get misunderstood or blurred by using a third party.  The advantage of mediation is that you are both putting forward your views and the other can listen and respond at the time, not 2 or 3 weeks later.  The mediator can help by translating and clarifying if necessary.  Then, in a constructive and problem-solving way you talk through the options and work out what is best for your separated family. Then you do it, job done!

The Unreported Flaws Behind Penelope Leach’s ‘Toxic Truth’

Parenting guru Penelope Leach’s recent claim that after parents split, no child under four can spend even one night away from their primary carer – usually their mother without the risk of lasting damage – has caused a storm of controversy in family law. Her latest book, Family Breakdown, cites “undisputed evidence” that overnight separation from mum can adversely affect a child’s brain development.

These trenchant certainties threaten to have an enormous impact on parents and judges who are often confused about what is best after couples split.

Leach’s influence is even more worrying because science shows her “undisputed evidence” may well be wrong. She relies on a study from Australia (McIntosh el al 2010) Responding to this study, the American Psychological Association (APA) has published a paper, Social Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A Consensus Report,  endorsed by 110 of the world’s leading child mental health experts from 15 countries, repudiating its conclusions. The lead author of the Australian study has subsequently dropped the conclusions that Leach relies upon, stating: “Cautions against overnight care during the first three years are not supported.” Sadly for so many children and their parents, Leach does not include this addendum in her book.

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We cannot afford for such important questions about child welfare to become an ideological battleground. Parents, mediators, lawyers  – and the judiciary – need clear guidance grounded in sound evidence. That’s why the APA review is so valuable, since it provides an overview of 45 years of settled and accepted research.

“We found no support for the idea that children under four (some say under six) need to spend nearly all their time living with only one parent, when their other parent is also loving and attentive,” the lead author Professor Richard Warshak said. “Warnings against infants and toddlers spending overnight time with each parent are inconsistent with what we know about the development of strong, positive parent-child relationships. Babies and toddlers need parents who respond consistently, affectionately and sensitively to their needs. They do not need, and most do not have, one parent’s full-time, round-the-clock presence.”

At Focus we can, in many cases if you and your children want, talk to your children in confidence about their thoughts, wishes and feelings.  It won’t be easy for either of you, but at the end of it we hope that you will have reached an agreement that you both feel works for you and most importantly your children.

Important stages in family break-down

Understanding where you are on the journey makes finding your way easier

Usually, one half of the couple initiates the split. They may well have been thinking about the future of the relationship for some time, usually not saying anything to their partner, in case they were wrong and not wanting to make it worse, until they were sure.  When they break the news to their partner that the relationship is over, it means the other person has a lot of emotional catching up to do. Immediately you have the problem of two people being in completely different emotional stages on the grieving cycle. When we mediate for such couples, it is difficult to go fast enough for one or slow enough for the other. It is unhelpful to say things like ‘it’s over, get over it’. There isn’t a get over it switch! Then add to the mix other people, children, friends and family, then the cast of possible professionals who might help, and you are set for a busy time.

 

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So here is the timetable:

    • One partner decides relationship is over, this may have taken then years to decide

 

    • Tells partner

 

    • Period of shock and recriminations – 52 card pick-up

 

    • Partner needs time to adjust to the idea, is often unstable and upset. They have to work through the grieving cycle, so denial, anger, blame, crying, depression, moving on eventually to recovery, acceptance, moving on

 

    • Telling children and extended family and friends makes it real and retraction becomes increasingly unlikely

 

    • Children start on their own cycle of loss and grief

 

    • Couple considers how to sort it out. May seek help from doctors, counsellors, solicitors, mediators.

 

    • Couple may be confused about resolution options, timescale and comparative costs

 

    • Couple may be afraid if they don’t ‘get tough’ they may lose out

 

 

    • Adjustment to separation brings calmer consideration of less nuclear options for sorting out the  future

 

    • Some couples can agree much themselves, some can’t agree anything

 

 

    • Couple chooses resolution option that feels best to them and starts it

 

    • Some change their minds, e.g. Start court proceedings then mediate or vice versa

 

 

However people sort things out, it does take some time. This is partly emotional recovery time and partly the time taken by the chosen route to resolution. The fact is that mediation is by far the fastest and most cost effective process for sorting out separation and divorce and therefore it makes sense to use it first and only choose more expensive and adversarial options if you have to.

 

Make it better not worse – mediate first.

 

Hearing about Mediation before you can apply to Court – why it’s a good idea.

The Children and Families Act came into force on 22nd of April 2014. For the first time it requires would be applicants to court to hear about mediation and how it might be able to help them, before making their court application. This simply gives them a choice of court or mediation before they embark on the court route. As such it is a useful intervention. This meeting is fast becoming known as a ‘mediation awareness meeting’? Its formal name is  the Mediation Intake Assessment Meeting or MIAM.

A qualified mediator will tell couples about mediation and the alternatives to court adjudication. This is greatly needed, as put simply, if mediators don’t tell people about how mediation may help them, mostly people do not understand it and don’t try mediation. Before the compulsory referral to hear about mediation from a mediator in 1999, there were only a few hundred mediations a year. After legal aid applicants had to hear about mediation from a mediator in 1999, this rose to about 13,500 mediations a year and it has stayed about the same every year that is until last May, when all compulsory referrals to a mediator for mediation assessment stopped, along with the abolition of legal aid for family cases. Then, couples unaware of mediation simply went straight to court and the number of court applications has increased massively everywhere, with many fewer mediations taking place. The fact is, in many cases lawyers do not sell mediation, they are more likely to sell legal services and to negotiate the case in a conventional, positional way. This increase in adversarial resolution is bad for families, turning them into opponents in what is often an expensive, long drawn out ‘ping pong’ of letters and court hearings.

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Compulsory mediation awareness meetings do not mean compulsory mediation, nevertheless many people will choose to go on to mediate and save themselves and their families a great deal of time, money and avoidable stress. If some family lawyers don’t like it, and it is only some lawyers, we have to ask why are they so worried about people simply hearing what mediation has to offer? They don’t have to mediate and no one is saying people should not hear about the legal resolution methods. If people need to go to court, they can still go to court, if they want lawyers to write letters then they can pay for that, but a tiny proportion of cases do actually get decided by a judge, so deciding them even earlier in mediation seems like a good idea to most people.

The reality is that in most disputes over children, the worst thing that can happen to a family is a brutal fight over the children, replete with welfare reports, adversarial arguments and adjudication or shuttle diplomacy between lawyers at court, cobbling something together under immense pressure and making that into an order. A series of mediation sessions over a few weeks or months with changes being introduced and reviewed, improvements made and children’s views taken on board where possible, is just so much better for most families.

Where property and finance issues are concerned, mediation has a massively important role to play in resolving settlements quickly and at proportionate cost. How much do you think should be spent on legal fees  of resolving a financial settlement on divorce? Should it be 10% , 20% or some other proportion of the overall value of the family pot?  This is the thorny problem the courts are not addressing. There is a court rule that the legal costs must be proportionate to the value of a dispute. This is universally ignored, as it seems to convey no meaning to the judges or the legal representatives. It is common for the costs to be half or even more of the value of the dispute – where is the sense in that? If you bear in mind that in most family cases, unless it’s a very short marriage or there’s a pre nup, there is a starting point or yardstick of equal division of the assets, then the value of the dispute is probably no more than between 10% to 25% of the overall pot. Legal costs frequently exceed 10% to 25% of the value of the family pot. How can that to be regarded as proportionate to the value of the dispute? It isn’t proportionate at all.

So, in a nutshell, the changes with regard to compulsory mediation assessment meetings brought in by the Children and Families Act are mostly welcome and long overdue.  Compulsory mediation meetings before court applications can be made will enable a significant number of families to avoid court proceedings and expensive legal costs by choosing mediation, once they know how it can help them. Previously, they often simply issued proceedings and the legal route was the default option. Now a real choice is being offered and it is up to mediators and lawyers alike to help couples make the best choice for their family, taking into account everything relevant to the family.  It is the couple that matters most and finding the best way forward for them, not what matters to the lawyer or the mediator – selling the service they prefer to sell. The family is at the heart of separation and divorce, how they sort out their arrangements, which process they use, should be an informed decision they take and the advent of mediation assessment will help ensure public awareness of mediation when they need it most.

Lots of new enforcement rules for the new Child Maintenance Service, so why did they drop the word “Enforcement” from its name?

The Child Support Agency (CSA) will close and is being replaced by the Child Maintenance Service – but they’ve dropped the words “and Enforcement” from its title – because that’s what it will do. So we can’t say what it’s to do on the tin, it might upset people! There will be changes to the child support calculation. The old basic formula (15% of the paying parent’s net income for one child, 20% for two and 25% for three or more children) is being replaced by rather less memorable percentages of the gross income.

 

  1. There will be a £20 application fee and collection charges. There will be additional charges if the child maintenance service has to collect money from the paying parent and that will be 20% on top of the child maintenance amount and the receiving parent will have their maintenance reduced by 4%, so those are quite significant payments, particularly for the paying parent.  However, if you make the arrangements for payment direct between you these charges do not apply, so it’s very much in everyone’s interest to avoid using the CMS if they can.

 

  1. Transfer of CSA cases to CMS. Over the next few years everyone using the CSA will have their cases closed, so once the new service is working well, parents will be given six months notice their CSA cases are closing and you then have the option of applying to the CMS if you need to BUT you can always contact out and a agree yourselves direct.

 

  1. CSA Arrears. If you’ve got to arrears of maintenance of the CSA those stand and they can still be enforced, so they’re not going to disappear, but you may have the same problems you’ve got now – though the CMS and can help setting up and collecting maintenance and its new powers are likely to make it very effective at this.

 

  1. HMRC to tell CMS paying parent’s income  Perhaps the most effective change is that the CMS will use information from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) to access information about the income of the  paying parent’s income and this will be checked with HMRC each year to make sure the calculation is still correct. This is a really practical development, as previously some people who might not want to defraud the HMRC,  might still play games with the CSA, now they can’t.

 

  1. Family-Based Arrangements – DIY  Before you can apply to the CMS you will speak to the Child Maintenance Options Service to talk about whether you can make a Family-Based Arrangements instead. Although they will try and encourage you to make your own arrangements where possible (as this will save the CMS money) you can apply to the CMS.

 

  1. Process If you apply the CMS will contact HMRC and find out the paying parent’s income, then using information given to them by the parent with whom the children live – the CMS will just assess the paying parent and tell them what to pay.  This information includes how many children are in each household and how many overnight stays the children have with the paying parent.  HMRC will use people’s National Insurance numbers to try and find them if they have disappeared, so it should be harder to escape paying.

 

  1. Once the maintenance is calculated there are two payment options:
  • Direct pay, where the calculation is done but  you sort it out between yourselves
  • Collect and Pay, where the CMS will collect the money from the paying parent and can enforce arrears, but charge you.

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The CMS calculates child maintenance using the paying parent’s gross income before deductions, to work out the payment – previously pension contributions tax and national insurance could be deducted. Other income such as interest on savings, income from a company, or on rental property is ignored in the initial calculations. Assets such as savings and property are also ignored. If the paying parent has other income or savings you can ask the standard child maintenance calculation to be varied so that these are taken into account. An important note – income of the paying parent’s partner is not included in the calculation, never has been, no change. Details of special rules are beyond the remit of this article.

 

The rates; there are different rates of child maintenance depending on the paying parent’s income.

 

There are nil, flat and reduced rates for none or low income parents, but for most parents paying maintenance the situation is set out below:

 

  • The basic rate of child maintenance: the paying parent pays the basic rate if none of the other rates apply. It’s a percentage of the paying parent’s gross income calculated in two stages:
  • Stage one –  the paying parent’s gross income is reduced depending on the number of children living with them, if any, this includes the children of the new partner living with them.

So –  Stage one example:

If there’s one child living with the paying parent the percentage gross income is reduced by 11%  two children  it’s 14% reduction and three or more it’s a 16% reduction.

  • Stage two

Maintenance is a percentage of the amount left from the gross income after any deductions are made in stage one. The percentage depends on the number of children that need to be paid for. The amount is rounded to the nearest pound.

 

Number of children applied for Percentage of gross income up to £800 Percentage of gross income over £800
One 12% 9%
Two 16% 12%
Three or more children 19% 15%

 

If you share care of your child – and this does mean overnight stays – then the child maintenance award can be reduced by a seventh if on average of the child or children spends 52 -103 nights of the year with the paying parent, and so on and so forth.

If the paying parent has other children they don’t live with from another relationship, then that will reduce the amount of maintenance paid to both families.

 

Useful sources of information:

www.gov.uk/child-maintenance                 There is an online calculator

 

Remember if you are or have been married there may be spousal maintenance due in addition, so worrying overmuch about the CMS may be pointless.

 

Enforcement:

 

The CMS has a range of potentially draconian powers to enforce payment – they can:

  • Take money directly from your earnings.
  • Take money directly from your bank, building society and post office accounts
  • Use enforcement powers through the courts to get  child maintenance paid and
  • Get orders you pay these court costs as well
  • This can affect your credit rating and make it difficult to get loans or mortgages
  • The CMS can apply to court for a Liability Order and then
  • Send bailiffs to go to your home and seize belongings
  • Put a charge against your property or other assets so you can’t sell or re-mortgage
  • Force the sale of your property or assets
  • Take away your driving licence and
  • Send you to prison.

 

If people try to avoid paying child maintenance by giving the wrong information or none, or don’t tell CMS their circumstances have changed or have disposed of assets so they can’t enforce maintenance – there is a long list of rules getting tough evasion and collection action. There may be some rather sad cases, especially if they get it wrong.

 

What are the changes intended to achieve?

 

The gargantuan cost of the CSA has been out of all proportion to the value of maintenance it collected. It has struggled to get it right and to collect money from determined non payers. The changes are intended to bring about a huge change as follows:

  1. Reduce the costs to the tax payer of collecting child maintenance
  2. Increase accuracy of assessment by using HMRC information about income
  3. Collect more child maintenance with better enforcement powers
  4. Make people see they will have to pay so
  5. They calculate the payments themselves and pay without using the CMS, so see 1 above!

 

Will it work? Probably in most cases . . . . but we shall see what effect the Law of Unintended Consequences has this time. . . ..

The Children and Families Act 2014 – Family Law is Changing

Heralded as the biggest change to the family law system in a generation, will today’s changes to the family legal system make any difference to real families? Certainly, shortening the time taken   for important cases about children in care to be decided by the courts will be a big improvement.  Children caught up in the care system were previously waiting over a year for their cases to be decided, which is far too long and very bad for those children’s happiness and life chances. The new time limit for a decision will be six months, a great improvement.

 

However, what about the majority of the families needing help sorting things out? For most families some of the changes are more apparent than real. Arguments over arrangements for the children are not likely to improve because people are supposed to avoid the words ‘residence’ and ‘contact’, just as they didn’t change when we swapped the words ‘custody’ and ‘access’ for ‘residence’ and ‘contact’. The issue of who the children live with when is still a thorny one and changing the words to ‘child arrangements’ makes little difference. Other than that, there is a change to a theoretical single family court, but again, this means that cases can be allocated to the county court where there are professional judges or the magistrates where there are lay (but trained) magistrates – but both will now be called the “Family Court”.  Will this make a huge material difference to court users given the decision-makers and buildings will be the same as before the name changed to “Family Court” remains to be seen!  There will still be the High Court for cases needed high court adjudication.  Some cases that would previously have been decided by a judge may be heard by a magistrate – but it will all be the “Family Court” so that’s all right then!

 

People who can afford it may feel increasingly inclined to pay for private adjudication by a family law expert in the field, to ensure the quality of the decision – this is called arbitration and might produce a dual system of private justice completely outside the state court system. It would save government money, but create a dual system for the haves and have-nots. There could be an issue over the quality of the decisions and interpretation of the law, if many complex and difficult cases are decided by non family law experts.

 

Against this background family mediation looks like a very sane and sensible option.  An experienced, qualified mediator helps a couple to make their own arrangements for their children and settle their own financial settlement.  The impartial mediator gives relevant legal information to help decision-making and the couple know what they are agreeing to. It is a fast affordable alternative to the vagaries of the court system and at least now people have to hear about mediation properly from a mediator.  Couples share the cost of the mediator and pay nothing if they qualify for legal aid, whereas there is no legal aid for most family law work any more, there is for family mediation. If couples don’t mediate they have to pay the whole costs of their separate lawyers, instead of share the cost of their mediation.  Before anyone can bring a court application they will mostly now have to hear about mediation before they can apply to court. This last change is one of the most sensible changes the new Act brings in and it is long overdue. Court fees are expensive and rising –  pointless if unnecessary. People will now be given a real choice and awareness of the options for sorting out their settlement and arrangements without using the conventional legal and court route. Mediation is the prime alternative and mediators can now explain it to couples properly, instead of people assuming it’s unsuitable for them or not even realising it exists and that legal aid still exists to help them mediate.

 

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The Children and Families Act comes into force on 22nd of April 2014

For the first time it requires would be applicants to court to hear about mediation and how it might be able to help them, before making their court application. This simply gives them a choice of court or mediation before they embark on the court route. As such it is a useful intervention. This meeting is fast becoming known as a ‘mediation awareness meeting’ – its formal name is the Mediation Intake Assessment Meeting or MIAM.  A qualified mediator will simply tell couples about mediation and the alternatives to court adjudication.
This is greatly needed, as put simply, if mediators don’t tell people about how mediation may help them, mostly people do not understand it and don’t try mediation. Before the compulsory referral to hear about mediation from a mediator in 1999, there were only a few hundred mediations a year. After legal aid applicants had to hear about mediation from a mediator in 1999, this rose to about 13,500 mediations a year and it has stayed about the same every year until last May, when all compulsory referrals to a mediator for mediation assessment stopped along with the abolition of legal aid for family cases. Then couples unaware of mediation simply went straight to court and the number of court applications has increased massively everywhere, with many fewer mediations taking place. The fact is, in many cases lawyers do not sell mediation; they are more likely to sell legal services and to negotiate the case in a conventional positional way. This increase in adversarial resolution is bad for families, turning them into opponents in what is often an expensive, long drawn out ping pong of letters and or court hearings.

 

Compulsory mediation awareness meetings do not mean compulsory mediation, but many people will choose to go on to mediate and save themselves and their families a great deal of time, money and avoidable stress. If some family lawyers don’t like it, and it is only some lawyers, we have to ask why are they so worried about people simply hearing what mediation has to offer? These people don’t have to mediate and no one is saying people should not hear about legal resolution methods. If people need to go to court, they can still go to court, if they want lawyers to write letters then they can pay for that, but a tiny proportion of cases do actually get decided by a judge, so deciding them even earlier in mediation seems like a good idea to most people.

 

The reality is that in most disputes over children, the worst thing that can happen to a family is a brutal fight over the children, replete with welfare reports, adversarial arguments and adjudication or shuttle diplomacy between lawyers at court, cobbling something together under immense pressure and making that into an order. A series of mediation sessions over a few weeks or months with changes being introduced and reviewed, improvements made and children’s views taken on board where possible, is just so much better for most families.

 

Where property and finance issues are concerned, mediation has a massively important role to play in resolving settlements fast and at proportionate cost. How much do you think should be spent on legal fees for resolving a financial settlement on divorce? Should it be 10% or 20% or some other proportion of the overall value of the family pot?  This is the thorny problem the courts are not addressing. There is a court rule that the legal costs must be proportionate to the value of a dispute. This is universally ignored, as it seems to convey no meaning to the judges or the legal representatives. It is common for the costs to be a third or half or even more of the value of the dispute – where is the sense in that? If you bear in mind that in most family cases, unless it’s a very short marriage or there’s a pre-nup., there is a starting point or yardstick of equal division of the assets, then the value of the dispute is probably no more than between 10% to 25% of the overall pot. Legal costs frequently exceed 10% to 25% of the value of the family pot. How can that to be regarded as proportionate to the value of the dispute? It isn’t proportionate at all.

 

So, in a nutshell, the changes with regard to compulsory mediation assessment meetings brought in by the Children and Families Act are mostly welcome and long overdue.  Compulsory mediation meetings before court applications can be made will enable a significant number of families to avoid court proceedings and expensive legal costs by choosing mediation, once they know how it can help them. Previously they often simply issued proceedings and the legal route was the default option. Now a real choice is being offered and it is up to mediators and lawyers alike to help couples make the best choice for their family, taking into account everything relevant to the family.  It is the couple that matters most and finding the best way forward for them, not what matters to the lawyer or the mediator – each trying to sell the service they prefer to sell. The family is at the heart of separation and divorce, how they sort out their arrangements, which process they use should be an informed decision they take and the advent of mediation assessment will help ensure public awareness of mediation when they need it most.  This is needed simply because without it as we have seen, people do not know about mediation or find out about it until it is too late.  There has to be a compulsory  mediation awareness stage  as once people have started going down the court route, mediation referral can be a bit late for many of them to gain the most benefit in terms of the expense, stress and delays of court proceedings.