Apologies for blogblock recently. Not so much an exended summer, more holding our breath to see whether the rise in LIP (litigants in person) or SRL (self represented litigants) at courts around the country or the increase in the small claims limit to £10,000 is prompting an uptake of mediation. For civil disputes it’s difficult to tell. In family mediation the picture is worrying. Given that legal aid was removed for many matters, including most private law family matters on 1st April 2013, it seems the message that legal aid remains available to fund mediation has yet to reach the very people who could benefit from it.
The cuts in legal aid may have left many with the impression that no-one is eligible for legal aid for any problem. Certainly referrals for family mediation for the second quarter this year are down by 36% compared with the same quarter last year. However just as public funding for family mediation remains available so too is it there for civil mediation where a party is publicly funded.
It is against this background that the launch of the National Mediation Providers Association’s website and perhaps more importantly, its phone number, is to be particularly welcomed. The Ministry of Justice closed the National Mediation Helpline 2 years ago today for a modest saving of reputedly less than £70,000 and put a virtual civil mediation online directory in its place without a phone number; what followed was an information gap. Who could neutrally explain the potential benefits of mediation to a party who was locked into a litigation process? Judges are now staying cases for parties to mediate and although there is a lot of internet information, none of it is a human listening ear or an experienced voice which is what most parties in a dispute need. The NMPA is not a substitute for legal advice though. Whilst mediators themselves are drawn from diverse backgrounds including legal ones, parties who enter mediation being unable to afford legal advice are hindered from achieving the best from the mediation process. The dangers of parties entering mediation without legal advice was highlighted in GCM’s response to the government consultation ‘Transforming Legal Aid’.
The NMPA now provides the means of filling the information gap. Comprised of many of the mediation provider panels in England and Wales, all accredited by the Civil Mediation Council, the NMPA is available to provide information to anyone needing it. Individuals in a dispute, lawyers advising parties in dispute or businesses seeking speedy resolution can all benefit from understanding what mediation is, how it works and what the next steps are. The first step is the price of a local call from anywhere in the UK to 0845 544 2199 which gives access to unbiased information, experienced mediators and an opportunity to imagine that a resolution of the dispute is really possible.