Children caught in the middle of family breakdown court battles at long-term risk from trauma while the process is costing the public almost £8.9m annually, says Family Mediation NI (FMNI)

The charity has called for action from a multi-departmental approach to keeping family conflict out of the courtroom, where possible, achieving better outcomes for the child by working to implement the recommendations from the Gillen Review of Civil & Family Justice.

Family Mediation NI (FMNI) is marking its 21 years of delivering mediation services across Northern Ireland by hosting a special event today (Thursday, November 25, noon) at the Long Gallery in Parliament Buildings, Stormont.

The briefing will be attended by the Department of Health, Department of Justice, Department of Finance former Lord Chief Justice, Sir John Gillen, the Mental Health Champion and representatives from the voluntary, social services and legal sectors.

The goal of the ‘Celebrating 21 Years of Delivering Family Mediation’ event is to highlight the positive impact mediation can have on children when parents choose to engage that option before or without entering court.

FMNI, a charity funded by the Health and Social Care Board, will make clear that despite its efforts to ensure greater access to mediation for more separated families, there continues to be more and more acrimonious family splits entering the court room.

The impact of these poorly managed, high conflict parental separations, as well as long waiting times to obtain a contact order, can result in long lasting negative consequences for children.

And court statistics indicate an average of 5500 children are subject to these contact and residency orders in Northern Ireland courts annually, which is a spend of £8.9m in legal aid.

Meanwhile just £225,000 has been spent on family mediation with FMNI annually through a contract with the Health and Social Care Board.

FMNI can evidence that family mediation is more productive in empowering parents to agree co-parenting going forward, when accessed early during the separation process. The charity also says it is also much less costly with the mediation process costing on average £800 per family compared to the average court case costing of what FMNI estimates could be approx. £1500 in legal aid.

As well as the cost implications of defaulting straight to court, FMNI says poorly managed parental separation can have long term negative effects on children — throughout their childhood, impacting on educational performance and life chances.

This is further supported by the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland which recognises that poorly managed parental separation and alienation from one parent is ranked in the top ten of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) that, left unchecked can lead to many life challenges.

FMNI says accessing mediation at the right time for the family can reduce the potential for alienation due to separation from one parent and improves the child’s outcomes and wellbeing, including reducing stress and anxiety related to an acrimonious parental split.

Engaging voluntarily with the process of mediation also empowers parents to manage conflict, focus on the future needs of the child and effectively co-parent while reducing potential for adverse childhood experiences.

Joan Davis, Director, Family Mediation NI, said: “We have been consistent in the delivery of a professional mediation service to the public on behalf of the Health and Social Care Board for 12 years and call on the Executive to ensure mediation continues to play a vital role in managing family disputes and keeping child contact issues out of court rooms when appropriate to do so.

“Greater access to mediation has the potential to reduce the public spend on contact applications but, more importantly, we owe it to children to approach conflictual family breakdown differently, to reduce the level of anxiety for all involved and the mental health impacts leading to self-harm and the increased referrals to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services.

“We are calling on the NI Executive for a multi-departmental approach for the implementation of the ‘One Stop Shop’ model of family support to divert separated families from the court system as per the recommendation of Sir John Gillen for better outcomes for children.

“Family Mediation’s mission is to ensure that the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child’ (UNCRC) is the focus of all separated parents’ mediation that includes children. This includes Article 9 (Separation From Parents), which says, ‘Children must not be separated from their parents against their will unless it is in their best interests (for example, if a parent is hurting or neglecting a child). Children whose parents have separated have the right to stay in contact with both parents, unless this could cause them harm.”

“Our statistics over the years show that mediation is, in many instances, the better option for the child and family, with 85% of those who engage with our facilitative process, voluntarily, agreeing on the issues they both bring to the process and drafting a full Mediated Agreement or a co-parenting plan. A further 90% would recommend mediation to others.”

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