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Kent mediation service offers courtroom alternative

PUBLISHED: 09:35 19 June 2013 | UPDATED: 09:35 19 June 2013

Lord McNally (third from left) with staff at South East London Family Mediation Bureau.

Lord McNally (third from left) with staff at South East London Family Mediation Bureau.

Archant

More than 120,000 couples filed for divorce in the UK last year.

Separating from a partner is often stressful, made worse by the long-drawn-out legal processes and costs.

But more people are stepping away from the courtroom in favour of settling their differences through mediation, an option that may become more common under new laws currently going through Parliament.

Separating couples will soon be legally required to find out about ways to resolve disputes away from court and justice minister Lord McNally recently visited a mediation service, in Bromley to find out more about the process for which the government is providing £25million a year.

South East London Family Mediation Bureau, in North Street, was the first of its kind in the UK when it opened in 1977. It now deals with 600 referrals a year.

“When people think of divorce, they immediately think of legal processes,” said Lord McNally. “That can be more expensive and often exacerbates the feeling of conflict.

“This place genuinely looks for common ground and, although the break-up of any marriage is sad, if we can get a settlement both parties sign up for, then it’s more likely to stick without resentment.

“It must be reassuring to know that you have one of the best and most respected mediation centres in the country. It’s like a haven in the storm for some people.”

Service manager Fred Gibbons has worked at the centre since it first opened and was its key mediator after leaving behind a career as a probation officer.

He has overseen countless sessions with couples looking to divide money and property and agreeing child custody arrangements. It is a cheaper option for most, though the emotional strain can be great – with sessions in the same room as an ex lasting up to five hours.

“Mediation is so low cost because we have barely any overheads,” he explains. “We have some of the best barristers working here for low fees.

“If there’s a chance we can help you, we will keep going. There’s no limit to the time we spend with people. The mediators will endeavour to reach an agreement before it reaches court.”

Mum-of-three Janice Henderson, of Birkbeck Road, Sidcup, used mediation rather than visiting a courtroom when she split from her husband of 15 years.

She called the process “very emotional” but praised the mediators for being “patient” and “so understanding”.

“I was an emotional wreck when the process started and speaking to them at the time felt very raw and painful,” said Janice. “But, especially for the children, it was far less traumatic and drawn out than I imagine using legal methods would have been.

“By the end of it all, me and my ex-husband were able to have conversations and we’ve got a really good relationship now – which, again, is good for the kids and the best possible outcome from such a horrible time.”

Despite a career spanning more than 30 years, Fred is aware that his industry is still relatively unknown to the masses and hopes the changes in law will help educate the masses.

He said: “Until students are educated in schools, we will always be an afterthought. But these government plans can only help. All we want is for people to just consider us.”

For more on the Bromley bureau, go to selfmb.org.uk.

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