Why breaking up is getting even harder to do

By Brian Milligan
Personal Finance Reporter, BBC News

image captionFewer couples are using mediation to help when separating

As Abba once sang so wistfully, breaking up is never easy.

But when Benny and the band reflected on the passing memories and the tears, they forgot to mention the practical dilemmas faced by separating couples: how to divide the money, and what to do about the children.

And in the last six months sorting out those issues has got even harder.

Dozens of centres designed to help couples split up amicably are in danger of closure.

Indeed some are already in the process of shutting their doors.

The closures are an unintended consequence of cuts to the legal aid system, which the government introduced in April.

Since then mediators have seen far fewer couples coming through their doors.

In May last year 2,800 couples attended sessions, according to the government. By May this year that had more than halved to 1,200.

'Hidden service'

For most people, mediation is a much less stressful process than going to court. It is also cheaper.

The mediator will take it for granted that the couple is splitting up, so his or her job is simply to help divide the financial assets, and arrange access to the children.

Lawyers are not involved.

"It gets sorted a lot quicker. You both still have your say. And there are no arguments," says 23 year-old Sinead Harris from Guildford in Surrey.

She spilt from her partner earlier this year, and needed help with arranging access to her two year-old son.

"Going through the courts would have meant more stress and more arguments," she says, "which is not good for a child to be around."

So why are fewer people using the service?

Since April, most couples no longer qualify for legal aid for divorce or separation.

When they did receive legal aid, lawyers would often refer them on to mediators.

Now that process no longer happens.

"Because there's no legal aid, people don't look at mediation," says Eileen Pereira, of National Family Mediation.

"Ours has become a hidden service," she adds.


Eight mediation services, including some based in Sussex, Wiltshire, Hertfordshire and Lancashire, have already announced their intention to close.

Eileen Pereira believes three or four times that number are also under threat.

If the closures continue she worries that many more families will be forced to use lawyers instead.

"That means they will be spending more," she says.

image captionThe government says it never meant to discourage mediation

"But also the emotional impact on the family will be much greater because the families will not be supported through this process."

The government, which had hoped the legal aid changes might actually encourage more people to use mediation, has been taken by surprise by the fall-off in demand.

Lord McNally, the Families Justice Minister, admitted that it was a "hiccup".

"We've noticed the dip," he told the BBC.

"We're looking at how we can address the issue, and hope to help them promote more mediation more vigorously in the future," he said.

But in the meantime much of the £25m set aside as legal aid for mediation has remained unspent.


From April 2014, a new law will require those separating in the courts to at least have tried mediation. The government believes that will re-invigorate demand for the services.

National Family Mediation, which represents mediation services around the country, cannot be certain how many services will still be in existence by then.

In the meantime the government is doing its best to encourage people to go ahead and find a mediator themselves, without being referred by a lawyer.

Couples can go via a Ministry of Justice website to locate a mediator based near them, or via National Family Mediation.

Those interested are also being reminded that in many cases legal aid is available. Anyone with income below £31,884 might be eligible, depending on some property-owning criteria as well.

In addition the government has produced a video, to give people further advice.

When they sang, Knowing me, knowing you, Abba also suggested, "There is nothing we can do."

However, that is a sentiment that advocates of mediation might well challenge.

Even though some break-ups are inevitable, there are ways in which the practicalities, and the costs, of separation can be made more tolerable.

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