Separating couples could face fines if they don't attempt mediation

A new power for judges could be brought in to order parents to make a reasonable attempt to mediate. Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Separating couples in England and Wales could face fines if they do not make a "reasonable attempt" to try mediation under new proposals.

Splitting parents will be required to try to agree their child custody and financial arrangements through a qualified mediator as part of the plans, only taking court action as a last resort.

Justice secretary Dominic Raab said the proposals aim to protect children and reduce backlogs.

Under the plans, a new power for judges could be brought in to order parents to make a reasonable attempt to mediate, with possible financial penalties if they act unreasonably and harm a child’s wellbeing by dragging out court proceedings.

The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) said the change could help up to 19,000 separating families resolve their issues away from the courtroom and that around 36,000 vulnerable families each year could benefit from faster hearings and quicker resolutions.

The plans would also help to reduce backlogs, easing pressures on the family courts and ensuring the justice system can focus on the families who need most protection, it added.

The plans would only apply to what are considered to be suitable low-level family court cases.

Cases involving allegations or a history of domestic violence would not be included in the mandatory mediation plan.

The proposals, which would apply to England and Wales, will be subject to a government consultation for 12 weeks from Thursday, closing on June 15.

Meanwhile, the government’s family mediation voucher scheme will be extended until April 2025, backed by an additional £15 million in funding, the MOJ said.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know

The scheme provides separating couples with vouchers worth up to £500 to help them solve disputes through mediation and has so far supported more than 15,300 families, the department said.

Justice Secretary Dominic Raab said: “When parents drag out their separation through lengthy and combative courtroom battles it impacts on their children’s school work, mental health and quality of life.

“Our plans will divert thousands of time-consuming family disputes away from the courts – to protect children and ensure the most urgent cases involving domestic abuse survivors are heard by a court as quickly as possible.”

John Taylor, chair of the Family Mediation Council, said: “Family mediation can play a really positive role in producing better outcomes for separating families, and in reducing the burden on courts.

“This consultation shows that ministers recognise its value in helping separating couples make parenting and financial arrangements without the stress and delays involved in going to court.”

Chief executive of the Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service (Cafcass), Jacky Tiotto, welcomed the proposals, saying it sees “the harm to which children are exposed in long adversarial court proceedings”.