40pc jump in people using mediation to avoid costly divorce
THE number of people seeking help from the Family Mediation Service (FMS) has jumped by more than 40pc as separating couples seek to avoid costly court cases.
Around 3,500 people use the State's free mediation service each year.
However, this figure jumped dramatically following the opening of a new pilot project at Dolphin House District Court in Dublin in March last year. It helped 2,024 people in its first full year in operation.
The project saw people who arrived at the court to lodge separation applications being offered mediation instead.
Polly Phillimore, service director with the FMS, said a combination of cost and a fall in waiting times had increased the popularity of mediation for separating couples.
Previously, clients had been forced to wait almost a year to access the service. However, an increase in the number of mediators engaged by the FMS means this is now down to between two and three months.
"The object of mediation is that couples avoid having to go to court. When couples get into court, it invariably becomes very acrimonious," explained Ms Phillimore.
She said the recession had made the free service more attractive to cash-strapped couples.
"People used to have the prospect of selling the family home and buying two places. But there are a huge number of people in negative equity and this is no longer a possibility.
"They might not be able to carry out what they need to do now but can work out an interim agreement," she added.
Figures for the number of couple using private mediation services are not collated. However, the Mediators Institute of Ireland said its website had received over 102,000 hits in the first six months of this year.
Solicitor and mediator Josepha Madigan said there had been a big increase in the number of couples going from "soulmates to cellmates" since the recession hit.
"They're stuck in the same home and want to separate. The don't qualify for legal aid but can't afford to pay privately for a solicitor," she said.
There has also been a marked shift in the profile of people using the FMS in recent years, with more complex relationships in play involving step-parents, foster parents and warring in-laws.
Marion Campbell, a family law solicitor and board member of AIM, a voluntary organisation that offers low-cost mediation, said she has seen an upsurge in demand for mediation since the downturn.
"There are a considerable number of people who can't afford to separate, they're in negative equity, and they can't afford the legal costs," she said.