Family Matters is leading the way nationally, with a record number of applications for the Ministry of Justice’s voucher scheme – supporting families financially with the cost of family mediation.
The scheme began in March 2021 as a way of encouraging families to come to mediation to reach agreements about arrangements for their children, instead of using the court system. It was devised in response to rising numbers of court applications, which resulted in backlogs and delays for families. You can find out more about the scheme by clicking on this link.
The scheme offers grants of £500 per family towards the cost of mediation sessions. The grants are not means-tested, consequently are available regardless of a family’s income or assets.
Family Matters’ director, Juliette Dalrymple, saw this as a great opportunity to increase the availability of mediation to families who could be put off by the potential costs of mediation. She initially set a target of applying for 10 vouchers, putting into place an easy online process for families to complete the consent and feedback needed to apply for the voucher. However, Family Matters quickly became one of the firms using the scheme the most, ensure families were fully aware of the scheme. Texts were used to send a link to families, enabling them to access and complete the online form in less than 30 seconds – with an aim to turn around applications within five working days.
The Family Mediation Council (FMC) oversaw the allocation of the grants and responded very quickly to Family Matters’ requests for vouchers.
As Family Matters is a busy practice, we made it our policy to tell every eligible client about the voucher scheme making it available to as many people as possible. As a result, we had an excellent take-up, and have recently applied for our 108th voucher.
Of course, this sounds like a significant amount of money, however, some of the vouchers are not used or partly used which gives a different picture.
Success rates in cases where a voucher has been allocated:
- 77% whole or partial agreement
- 23% no agreement
- 72% of cases that go to mediation under the scheme do not go to court at all
- 9% go to court with narrowed issues
- 19% go to court not having settled any issues in mediation
In the view of the mediator, if there was no financial contribution available would the participants have gone to mediation?
- No 48% of cases
- Yes 52% of cases
What Family Matters’ statistics show
- 84% of families would not have come to mediation if they had not been allocated a voucher
- 42% of our vouchers were allocated to single applicants
So far, of the 55 vouchers that have been claimed (this means that 53 vouchers are still being used) the majority were for less than £450. These cases resolved or the mediation ended after two or less mediation meetings, highlighting the fact that using the vouchers does not create delay in the system and the mediations are being actively managed by the mediator. Also, of the 55 voucher claims, 16 were for £450 and over, indicating that parents found the scheme valuable and used the majority of the funds to reach agreement.
Clients contacting Family Matters have been relieved to hear about the scheme – hearing there is some financial support for the cost of mediation has eased their stress. Many have heard about it from Family Matters in the first instance (via telephone calls, website or emails), but some have specifically come to us as they knew we are taking part in the scheme.
One father said:
“I reluctantly replied to the referral made for our children by my wife. I initially said that I didn’t want to come to mediation because I did not have the money to pay for it. Finding out there was some financial support for me, allowed me to be able to go to mediation without the extra worry of cost. My ex had legal aid, so the whole voucher was mine. It paid for everything.”
A mother said:
“Having been a single mum for the past three years, attending court and mediation several times before and not getting anywhere, when I got this latest referral, I was not happy at all. I wanted to do what was best for my children and that meant paying for mediation (again), which ultimately took money away from my family. When the mediation coordinator told me about the voucher I felt a sense of relief, as I knew it would pay for some, if not all of the sessions we needed.”
Family Matters has had one of the highest application rates for vouchers in the UK, taking part in the initial consultation scheme organised by the Family Mediation Council. We gave feedback about the factors that contributed to the scheme’s success and suggested areas for improvement.
Family Matters believes that some of the reasons it has made such a success of the scheme are:
- a simple, quick application process
- the mediation coordinators and mediators have discussed, and are aware of, the benefits of the scheme
- having a single point of contact with the FMC
- ensuring concerns and queries are addressed and resolved quickly
- a system for managing the vouchers, including identifying when they are no longer needed and claiming them promptly, so un-used funds can go back into the ‘pot’ to be accessed by other families
Moving Forward – what could be next for the voucher scheme?
The fund was always a fixed amount of money. However, the mediation community hopes it will be a source of data for the FMC and for mediators themselves.
Providing funding for families is the first step in moving away from court being the only route available to them in dispute and has the potential to be the foundation on which other developments could be built.
For example, vouchers could include funds to be used to pay for attendance on the Separated Parents Information Programme (SPIP), a course developed by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass).
Providing data which helps to understand the families who access mediation more specifically and the barriers to mediation in more detail will be of benefit in future policy development. For example, agreements reached in mediation could be fast-tracked to an identified court to reduce delays and act as an incentive for families.
If it is identified that either children or parents need support through separation, vouchers could include two sessions with a divorce coach and/or counsellor.
A tailored approach to individual cases could be developed where the voucher amount could be increased to cover the cost of a number of alternative dispute resolution options from a variety of resources.
The widespread use of phone apps could lead to a system where credits for services are uploaded onto an App and the parents/ children could access services and pay for them using the credits on the App.
Vouchers are not the answer to all the issues within the family court system but could be the first step on a path to building resilience for separated families and offering alternatives to going to court.
Families within the mediation process will decide on its success based on their perception of its usefulness and the lasting effectiveness of its outcomes. The more that can be offered at a cost that is affordable, the better for all concerned.