Middle Ground: The Benefits Of Hybrid Mediation 

Published on 03 March, 2022 | Judith Klyne

Most domestic relationships, no matter how long or short, involve differences of opinion, both large and relatively small.

Trying to resolve them and move forward can, of course, be extremely trying in itself.

Sometimes partners or spouses can be too close to the causes of disagreement to determine the best practical way forward.

That is true across the entire range of matters handled by the family courts, from divorce to discussions about the well-being of children.

Figures published by the Ministry of Justice in December show that there were 10,889 applications to courts in England and Wales for Specific Issue Orders during 2020 (https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/family-court-statistics-quarterly-july-to-september-2021/family-court-statistics-quarterly-july-to-september-2021#children-act—private-law).

The orders are judge-made decisions to settle disputes between parents on individual elements of a child’s upbringing, such as where he or she should live, how they should be taught or their medical treatment.

Even allowing for the impact of the pandemic on the amount of non-urgent matters handled by the courts, that figure still marked an increase of 72 per cent on the number just five years before.

Such proceedings are just one aspect of a massive caseload with which the court is asked to deal. In fact, official data indicates that almost 270,000 new cases began in family courts over the course of the last 12 months – up 16 per cent on the same period the year before.

The problem is not just the volume of matters on which courts are asked to intervene but how long they take to conclude.

Between July and September last year, private law children cases took a record 42 weeks to reach a final order.

Perhaps understandably, the Government is actively pursuing a range of options in an effort to reduce the strain which such a workload places on available resources.

Last November, the Lord Chancellor, Dominic Raab, was reported to be considering fines for parents thought to be “unnecessarily clogging up the courts” (https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/news/parents-could-face-costs-order-for-clogging-up-family-court/5110452.article).

Nevertheless, his favoured strategy is thought not to be the levying of financial penalties but Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and, in particular, mediation.

Mediation is one of a number of methods of ADR which have been growing in popularity in recent years.

Ministers are so convinced of the merits of mediation that before being able to make a court application, couples are required to attend a Mediation Information Assessment Meeting (MIAM) – a short, introductory session designed to explain the benefits of mediation and consider whether the matter at issue is suitable for resolution by that route.

As one might expect and like other types of family proceedings, the number of MIAMs fell during the pandemic.

However, the number of completed mediations now actually exceeds the levels seen before the start of lockdown.

In fact, two-thirds of more than 1800 family mediations which began in autumn last year resulted in agreement – up seven per cent on the same period in 2020 and four per cent on the figure for 2016.

Nevertheless, just as many aspects of our family lives have changed over the intervening two years, so too have attitudes to the types of mediation which are most effective.

Traditional mediation involves couples negotiating how best to settle their differences with the help of a mediator – a neutral third party.

The role of the mediator is not to tell them what to do but guide them to an agreement amicably.

Although effective, a ’round-table discussion isn’t suitable for everybody, especially those individuals who might be the victim of controlling or even abusive behaviour.

It’s one reason why we have seen the advent of something known as ‘hybrid mediation’.

Just as with the traditional model, the focus is on achieving a solution without the need for those involved to go to court.

Unlike the traditional model, though, it enables parties to effectively think out loud about how to resolve matters separately and in confidence with the mediator, so overcoming the potential anxieties of vulnerable men or women.

That idea of having a ‘safe space’ is, in some cases, critical to prospects of a breakthrough and one reason why hybrid mediation is regarded as a significant step forward.

It is also another skill which Hall Brown has been able to add to its portfolio of ADR services.

There are currently only a small number of hybrid mediators practising but more are being trained to offer this valuable service.

If you want to find out more about hybrid mediation and discover how it might work for you, why not contact myself by e-mail (Judith.Klyne@hallbrown.co.uk).

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