Operation of the Family Courts - Justice Committee Contents

Written evidence from the Cambridge Family Mediation Service (FC 27)



1.  Cambridge Family Mediation Service was established in 1982 and offers mediation, counselling and parenting programmes in the context of separation and divorce. We are a registered charity and a not-for-profit organisation and are members of National Family Mediation.

2.  Our vision is to build on our established expertise, of more than 25 years, to develop an integrated range of services in the context of separation and divorce as well as other related services concerning family matters. An important aim of our work is preventative and ideally our timely support and early resolution of family disputes diminishes the possibility of future mental distress and the need for costlier interventions and support later on.

3.  We employ seven mediators and three counsellors who in addition to their mediation/counselling/parenting programme training, bring a wealth of additional relevant skills including family law, teaching and family therapy. Over the years we have worked with more than 7,000 couples and provided support to about 15,000 children.


4.  In December 2004-December 2005 the Legal Services Commission (LSC) funded us to run a pilot project in Cambridge County Court, working in partnership with the local Judiciary and CAFCASS to provide a "Mediation Stall" on section 8 Children Act Application days. An evaluation was carried out during January and February 2006 and Cambridge County Court permitted us to examine the court files for those cases that had been referred to mediation during the pilot project, so that we could follow up the progress of each case. A copy of the evaluation can be provided on request.

5.  We resumed our presence in Cambridge County Court in October 2009, initially funded by Cambridge Evening News Press Relief Community Fund and then by the Evelyn Trust for two years to October 2011. Again, we work closely with the local Judiciary and CAFCASS, though this time, rather than have a stall, we sit in the courtroom with the Judge and Family Court Advisers before assessing the clients suitability for mediation if appropriate.

6.  It is in this context that the following submissions are made. As our response is succinct, we do not summarise our points here.


(i)  The effect of CAFCASS's operations on court proceedings, and the impact on the courts of the sponsorship of CAFCASS by the Department of Education

7.  CAFCASS's role in reporting to court on local authority & police checks is vital to the judge in assessing how to move the case forward, and in early detection of possible welfare issues.

8.  It is important role in facilitating discussions between conflicted parties, particularly where there are welfare issues.

9.  CAFCASS give a great deal of help to judge in identifying at outset whether a case may be suitable for in-court or out of court mediation & smoothing the way for the mediation referral process.

10.  CAFCASS are very helpful in assisting the judge to identify which cases are suitable for parent information programme (PIP) & helping to co-ordinate referral to PIP.

(ii)  The impact on court proceedings and access to justice of recent and proposed changes to legal aid

11.  New LSC contracts do not start until October 2010 so it is difficult to assess how severe the impact of the changes will be, but at a local level, we are aware that right now, there are more clients than available solicitors doing publicly funded family work and it is likely to be worse come October.

12.  Clients with limited resources currently have to telephone numerous firms to get an appointment; they don't always succeed and have to appear in court as litigants in person.

13.  Litigants in person often take up more of the court's time, as they require support from the court office, CAFCASS, and the Judges. This results in lengthy delays during s.8 days for all concerned: it is quite usual to have to wait for several hours beyond the hearing time before going before the Judge.

14.  Many clients that qualify for public funding have significant needs - learning difficulties, mental health problems, drug and alcohol misuse to name a few - and these people already struggle to access solicitors that have available "matter starts" to take on their case. From October, access to a solicitor may be more difficult, it is unlikely that these clients will be able to face court hearings as litigants in person, and their failure to attend court could have a serious impact on the outcome, not just for the parent but also the child/children

15.  Many family cases involve several parties - eg the mother, the fathers (if different fathers of a number of children), grandparents and sometimes guardian ad litem (if a 9.5 direction has been made). In cases such as these, only some parties may be able to access a solicitor in their area; the other parties may have to travel or simply act as litigants in person.

16.  From October, as fewer solicitors are doing publicly funded family work, in turn, there is likely to be a big reduction in clients attending intake appointments with the relevant App 7 form. This will reduce the number of clients able to consider mediation rather than going straight to court.

17.  Clients that manage to access a mediation service and qualify for public funding are likely to find it difficult to find a solicitor that can draft a Minute of Consent Order for financial matters within divorce proceedings. Some people may submit a consent order that is drafted without the assistance of a solicitor and this will require more court time

(iii)  The role, operation and resourcing of mediation and other methods in resolving matters before they reach court

18.  The constant cutbacks in LSC eligibility criteria make it increasingly difficult for clients to qualify for free mediation.

19.  Borderline LSC clients who do not qualify often feel they cannot afford mediation. Unfortunately, some of them may thereafter get sucked into court proceedings without trying mediation first, only to find that this is much more expensive than they expected. By then, the case may have become so entrenched that mediation is less likely to work.

20.  Making it a requirement that all parties to any family case (money and/or children - save for cases that fall within the exemption categories) should attend a mediation assessment meeting before being allowed to file a court application would maximise the chances of people at least trying mediation before going to court.

(iv)  Confidentiality and openness in family courts, including the impact of the recent changes in the Children, Schools and Families Act 2010

21.  We have no submissions on this point.

September 2010

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Prepared 14 July 2011