Justice Minister Lord McNally visits Bromley mediation centre ahead of new separation laws
PUBLISHED: 09:36 19 June 2013 | UPDATED: 09:36 19 June 2013
More than 120,000 couples filed for divorce in the UK last year.
Separating from a partner is more often than not a stressful time for most, made worse by the drawn-out legal processes and costs.
However, more people are stepping away from the courtroom in favour of settling their disputes 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 settle disputes away from court and Justice Minister Lord McNally recently visited a Bromley mediation service to learn more about the process that the government is giving £25million a year towards.
South-East London Family Mediation Bureau in North Street was the first of its kind in the UK when it opened in 1977 and deals with 600 referrals each year.
“When people think of divorce, they immediately think of legal processes,” said Lord McNally. “That can be more expensive and often exacerbate the feeling of conflict.
“This place genuinely looks for common ground and, though 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 in Bromley 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 the key mediator after leaving behind a career as a probation officer.
He has overseen countless sessions with couples looking to divide finances and property, and agreeing child custody arrangements. It is a cheaper option for most, though the emotional strain can be great with some sessions of up to five hours in the same room as an ex.
“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.”
Local author Joy Hartley, of Beckenham, was helped by Fred when her marriage of 20 years came to an end after she and her husband moved back to England from the USA.
Unlike most, Joy’s aim was to put the marriage back together through mediation sessions, but it was Fred and his team who showed her there was “light at the end of the tunnel” despite the couple’s separation.
She said: “They showed us why our marriage just couldn’t be put back together, there was so much hurt and pain – it would have taken us 10 years for things to go back to normal.
“I went in there like a lemon and didn’t know anything, and I was emotional too – as soon as someone talks about your life you cry. But I admire anyone who gives the time to listen and understand, which is what Fred did. Now I have my own business and things are much better.”
Despite a career spanning more than 30 years, Fred is aware that his industry is still relatively unknown and hopes the changes in law will help educate people.
He added: “Until students are educated in schools we will always be an afterthought. But the government’s plans can only help, all we want is for people to just consider us.”
To find out more about the Bromley bureau, visit selfmb.org.uk.