When parents separate, they do not simply separate into two family units, they shatter into multiple pieces creating a myriad of issues that they must work through – housing, mortgages, income needs, pensions, children and living arrangements. The emotional fallout coupled with the stress and worry as to how housing and income needs are to be met can mean that the focus is not always on the needs of the children. If these conversations about the impact of the separation and the practicalities of the future arrangements are not handled carefully it can cause lasting damage to already strained relationships. The impact of damaged relationships inevitably will fall most heavily on the children of the family.
At Resolution’s National Dispute Resolution Conference in 2019 the Honourable Mr Justice Cobb in his speech threw light on the enormity of the issues faced by families when separating and stark statistics relating to parental conflict. The following information and observations made during that speech have resonated greatly:
- The number of Children Act applications made to the court has increased by 25% in the past 5 years.
- 30% of cases in the family court at any one time are returning Children Act matters which often include cases being returned to the court within 12 months of a final order being made.
- In 2016 CAFCASS (the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) felt that about 60% of cases involved domestic violence which means that perhaps as many as 40% of cases are parents who just want clarity and certainty.
- Judges are not able to give cases the time that they deserve.
The above demonstrates that the court process is not working for parents and children in many cases which is likely to be because it is an adversarial process which frequently escalates tensions further which can compound the difficulties. Further, litigation can be a blunt instrument when it comes to child arrangements with orders being made by the court and imposed on families that may not work for them on a day to day and practical basis.
Family mediation however can help parents and improve outcomes. This is because at the heart of the family mediation process lies the welfare of the children. Mediation can also help parents because it provides all children and young people aged 10 and above with the opportunity to have their voices heard directly during the process if they wish which is something that traditional process methods do not provide.
Family law mediators are trained to understand the impact of separation and divorce on families and children and to signpost families to support services, courses and information to help them work through the issues. Mediators are aware that the following factors can impact children when their parents separate:
- The loss of a parent from their lives can cause them emotional harm and that they benefit from ongoing quality relationships with both parents;
- Conflict between their parents is harmful;
- They can suffer because of the financial impact of their parent’s separation; and
- They need to feel that they have the loving consent of a parent to enjoy and spend time with the other parent.
A mediator’s focus, during all discussions, is on the needs and interests of the children and they will encourage the parents to consider the children’s wishes and feelings as well as their own in their decision-making process. This can have a significant impact on helping parents to work through issues in a child focused way which promotes outcomes that are both workable and more likely to last.
Whilst the parent’s relationship may have ended, they will need to continue to communicate and work together in relation to the children in the longer term. Mediation encourages parties to work together and improve how they communicate to reduce the scope and the intensity of the dispute and conflict within the family. Family law mediators aim to minimise the distress of the parties and to promote them having as good a relationship as possible going forward for the sake of the children. It follows, that if parents are able to find workable outcomes and compromises together, that it can create the foundations for a more constructive relationship moving forward which will ultimately benefit children.
One of the main benefits of mediation for parents is that it is their process and within it there is room for creativity and adaptability to meet the needs of the parents and the children. For example, mediation itself can take many different formats – hybrid mediation, child inclusive mediation, shuttle mediation and mediation alongside the court process. Mediators also work closely with other professionals who can complement the mediation process, such as Family Law Consultants or therapists who may assist the parties in identifying the underlying issues and working on finding workable outcomes moving forward. Finally, if for any reason the mediation is not able to help parents to resolve their issues a mediator will be able to help them to identify other process methods that may assist them in moving forward.
If you are in the process of separating from your partner and want to explore how mediation can help you prioritise your children’s needs, please contact a member of our specialist family mediation team for a confidential discussion.