Divorce is often a traumatic time of bitter recrimination, regret, and sometimes a need for retribution.
This writer’s parents divorced in 1990, and I always wondered: Why was there not an easier way? Why did I hide whenever they returned from the regular court hearings? And why was mediation never considered?
Mediation can be an economically sensible, more mature way of dealing with breaks or break-ups, and issues such as child contact, finances, divorce, even for relationships where the protagonists initially struggle to sit in the same room.
The Peterborough and District Family Mediation Service is based in Broadway, and can offer free individual face to face meetings with an experienced family mediator for information and help on separation disputes, in Peterborough, Huntingdon, Wisbech, Stamford and Oakham.
The staff have seen every type of family in turmoil stomp or trudge through their doors. Everything from run-of-the-mill affairs to explosive rows, from disillusioned swingers to gay affairs, from childless couples to those with growing broods.
Yet despite the adaptability and experience of the service, offer many couples are unaware that it even exists, or its benefits.
It was announced at the beginning of the year the government would be pumping £10 million into mediation services, which on average save publicly-funded clients £3,500 and take a quarter of the time to resolve compared to a divorce. The funding has not translated to results - the number of people using mediation has declined.
Service manager Pat Murphy is keen to change this situation, knowing that what should be one of the services’ busiest times of the year is approaching. We are still three months away from what is grimly termed ‘Divorce Day’, the first working day in January, when enquiries about separation and divorce soar.
She said: “Most mediation services such as us doing free legal aid work are not-for profit specialist organisations without budgets for advertising and have seen a nationwide drop in work by 35 per cent.
“Compared to last year we have seen a drop by 57 per cent in such work in Peterborough in the first quarter, despite awareness raising efforts.
“People may turn to known and trusted people at the City Council for help in future as solicitors are no longer available free of charge, apart from domestic violence cases.
“Now solicitors are mostly charging fixed fees and may not mention to callers that free mediation is still available for those on benefits or low income.
“This sector, who cannot afford legal fees and may be distressed and upset, is being overlooked while help is available from us.
“We used to get 50 referrals a month from solicitors, but since the changes that has dropped down to zero.”
From April 2013 anyone going to court should possess a form stating they have already been for an assessment with mediators, and Pat said this requirement is now being enforced more vigorously. One couple were recently sent back for mediation, having opposed access to the service a year ago.
Another person sent back, after finding out that he could not defend himself in court during a divorce hearing, was retired teacher Tom Litten.
He said: “The work they did was very creditable, and I was surprised that the service is not more widely-known
“Unfortunately we didn’t resolve anything, but that was our situation, and nothing to do with the service we received.”
The benefits of the process are obvious, as free mediation is available to those financially eligible, following an 45-minute assessment for financial eligibility known as a MIAM (Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting).
All fees for those eligible will be met by the Legal Aid Agency. Otherwise sessions are based on a sliding scale of income, starting at £60 per session.
Mediation is not counselling; it aims to look at the practical and legal arrangements of separation, and work out plans for the children and its finances.
Pat said: “Some people want to go to court, and they want to be told that they are right and the other person is wrong.
“What they are actually asking for by going to court is direction, and if children are involved it is their welfare that is the most important factor, not who said what to whom.
“Mediators may have been solicitors, or social workers or been in probation. The role takes 18 months of training and is a very skilled one because they deal with such a range of people.
“We have had people who are swingers, people who have never seen their children, people who have had one night stands that have led to a break up.
“We had one recent case of a woman in her 70s who keeps ringing up asking for advice which we can’t give, and another one chap who had had a baby from a previous relationship and wanted to make amends years on and talk to his daughter. Her other siblings had no idea she had a different dad.”
Free mediation for children also exists, a service only offered in Peterborough.
Known as Talktime, the service provides counselling for children and young people between the ages of 6 and 19 who are experiencing difficulties.
Sadly, funding has been cut and children have been turned away, particularly desperate news as those who will lose out are usually those who need the service the most, either for their own health or because they do not understand what is happening in their life.
Of those seen between April and June this year, 56 per cent had been affected by domestic violence, and 39 per cent had a disability or special needs.
Pat said: “We had three years of funding for Talktime from the council, which ended last year
“There are no provisions anywhere else in Peterborough for children under the age of 12, and we are looking into grants for the service – because it really is vital.”