Memorandum submitted by National Family Mediation (CM 3)

 

Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill

 

 

 

1. Duty to provide information and guidance

 

1.1. The duty placed on the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (CMEC) by Clause 5, to provide information and guidance 'for the purpose of helping to secure the existence of effective maintenance arrangements for children...' is critical to the fulfilment of CMEC's objectives, as set out in Clause 2.

 

1.2. Opening the Second Reading debate, the Secretary of State made clear that the Government envisages CMEC involving relevant voluntary sector stakeholders in the provision of this information and guidance.[1]

 

1.3. The need for parents living apart to secure good, expert information and guidance about coming to maintenance agreements was a recurring theme of the Second Reading debate. For the proposed new system to work, such advice and information must be available, there must be a real option for parents to access it. There must also be appropriate means of enforcing agreements which are not honoured.

 

 

2. Making provision through mediation

 

2.1. As the Parliamentary Under-Secretary made clear in responding to the debate, the Government 'is in discussion with the voluntary sector about the evolution of the support and advices services...'.[2] Family mediation providers, of which National Family Mediation represents the not-for-profit sector, are particularly well placed to offer precisely the service which will bring about sustainable voluntary agreements about child maintenance.

 

2.2. This is, of course, because child maintenance arrangements are central to the range of issues which skilled, qualified family mediators facilitate with divorcing parents. The Bill offers the opportunity for this service to be available to all separated parents, regardless of their marital status, for the benefit of their children.

 

2.3. There is no question that financial arrangements negotiated and agreed voluntarily are better sustained than those that are imposed.

2.4. It is also the case that, where mediation is used during divorce to agree contact arrangements, these too are better sustained.[3] And in the experience of our member Services, where good contact arrangements have been agreed between the parents, and both are involved in their children's upbringing, non-resident parents are usually happier to make the agreed financial contributions because they understand the value, in every sense, of their contribution.

 

2.5. It is therefore reasonable to suppose that engagement in mediation to make maintenance arrangements is likely to ease the tension between the maintenance and contact which often arises, as many MPs mentioned during the Second Reading debate.

 

 

3. Access to provision of information and guidance through mediation

 

3.1. There are two elements to ensuring access to this provision:

location

funding

 

3.2. Location: The recent National Audit Office report on legal aid and family mediation[4] noted while travel costs might be a problem for some poorer people, nevertheless 'Some 78 per cent of the population live within five miles of a professional mediator and less than one per cent would have to travel more than 15 miles.' This is, evidently, a significant network of existing service within which the Clause 5 provisions of the Bill might be developed.

 

3.3. Funding:

 

3.3.1. The question of how access to information and guidance is to be funded appears not yet to have been settled. Clause 6 provides for regulations for fees to be charged and waived. We would urge that whatever fee regime is set in place, it does not deter parents from accessing information and guidance, on the one hand, and it affords sufficient resources for providers to deliver a high quality service, on the other.

 

3.3.2. A satisfactory voluntary agreed maintenance arrangement, which mediation is highly effective in securing, saves the state considerable sums of money - in collection, in distribution, and in enforcement action. Making adequate financial provision to ensure provision of information guidance services is not only a proper investment in children, but also cost effective. The National Audit Officer report points out that if the current requirement for referral of legally aided divorce cases to mediation were enforced, there would be a significant saving of public money 'equivalent to some 10 million a year'.[5] It is reasonable to suppose that the use of mediation to secure voluntary maintenance agreements would be similarly cost effective.

 

 

4. Sustaining the agreement

 

As we explained in our response to the Henshaw report, once a divorcing couple have reached an agreement through mediation, this agreement is incorporated into a Memorandum of Understanding, which is then used to form the basis of any Court Order that may be made. We would suggest that this approach offers the basis of a means of enforcement, should the maintenance agreement break down.

 

 

5. Conclusion

 

While we have some reservations about this Bill, which we hope will be taken up later by the Committee, we find much that is hopeful in it, and look forward to participating, together with other providers, in discussion with Government on how high quality information and guidance on making voluntary maintenance arrangement may be made available to parents. It is, of course, our hope that mediation will have a significant part to play in ensuring that children are properly provided for by their parents.

 

 

July 2007



[1] Hansard, 4 July 2007, Col 984

[2] Hansard, 4 July 2007, Col 1034

[3] See, for example, Emery, RE; Laumann-Billings, L; Waldron, M; Sbarra, DA; Dillon, P: Child custody mediation and litigation: Custody, contact, and co-parenting 12 years after initial dispute resolution. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 69, 323-332 (2001), which demonstrated that 12 years after the event, 30% of parents who had attended mediation were in weekly contact with their children as against only 7% who had been through litigation. At the opposite end of the spectrum, still after 12 years, 40% of parents who had been through litigation had one or less than one contact per year with their children. The figure for parents who had been through mediation showed that only 15% of them had such reduced contact.

[4] National Audit Office: Legal Services Commission: Legal aid and mediation for people involved in family breakdown, Comptroller and Auditor General, March 2007, HC 256 Session 2006-2007, pages 5 & 14

[5] NAO report cit, page 5