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Too many family breakdown cases are going to court rather than being settled through mediation, the National Audit Office has today reported. Family breakdown cases which are resolved through professional mediation are cheaper and quicker to settle. And academic research shows that they secure better outcomes, particularly for children, as they are less acrimonious. However, only 20 per cent of people in cases which are funded by legal aid opt for mediation, and over half go straight to the courts.

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There is scope to improve the value for money of the legal aid budget through increasing the take up of mediation in cases of family breakdown. The National Audit Office found that, on average, a mediated case takes 110 days to resolve, and costs £752 compared to 435 days and £1,682 in cases where mediation isn’t used. In the sample of cases it reviewed, the NAO found that over 95 per cent of cases settled through mediation were resolved within 9 months and all within 12 months. However, only 70 per cent of cases completed by non-mediation routes were settled within 18 months.

Despite these benefits, take up of mediation in cases funded by legal aid is low: currently 20 per cent. Between October 2004 and March 2006, only 29,000 out of 149,000 people attempting to resolve their family dispute tried mediation. This excludes some 30,000 domestic violence cases which would be unsuitable for mediation.

Although solicitors and legal advisers have a duty to advise their clients of the option of mediation, a survey of clients indicates this isn’t always happening. In a survey conducted by the NAO, one in three people who had been through a family breakdown case said they had not been told mediation was an option. Of those, 42 per cent said they would have been willing to try it. Use of mediation rather than the courts would have saved the taxpayer £10 million in these cases.

“One in three in our survey told us that they had not been made aware that mediation was an option. The Legal Services Commission needs to publicise the advantages of mediation and remove the financial disincentives to solicitors of recommending this option to their clients. Mediation can provide a less adversarial route than the courts for many families involved in family breakdown and result in savings in legal aid of over ten million pounds a year.”

Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office


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