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Can mediation take the pain out of divorce?

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Of the estimated 130,000 divorces each year in the UK, around 70 per cent now use mediators to resolve their concerns outside of the court system. New research by LSE sheds light on the impact parental conflict can have on children during the divorce process, and points the way towards how mediation could help.  

Family separation is a difficult process for all parties, with children often particularly affected. Since April 2011, divorcing couples in England and Wales have been legally obliged to attempt to resolve their cases through mediation, as changes to legal aid meant that it was no longer available for the majority of private family law cases.

Mediation involves couples holding discussions, co-ordinated by a certified mediator who acts like an impartial referee, to reach an agreement on their assets and childcare arrangements. Couples who agree a settlement then ask a court to turn it into a legally binding order, avoiding the need to enter into a confrontation in the court system, which can be a costly and lengthy process.

Research from LSE has looked at whether the children of couples who use mediation during their separation have different outcomes compared to those who resort to the courts. One of the focal points of the study was comparing the levels of contact between a child and a non-resident parent after separation, and whether this affects the child’s wellbeing.

Professor Wendy Sigle, one of the authors of the report with Dr Alice Goisis and Dr Berkay Ozcan, said: “The starting point was whether mediation and parental conflict might be linked. If you have a divorce process conducted through the courts which generates hostility amongst the parents and causes them to disengage, you might see longer term knock-on effects which could affect the child.”

One of the findings from the study was that the frequency of contact between the child and non-resident parent was higher among families who did not report court involvement. Professor Sigle said: “The analysis shows that parents who manage their separation outside of the court tend to see better outcomes for their children. This indicates that mediation could be a way of reducing conflict during separations.”

The report used data from the UK Millennium Cohort Study, a long-term study of 19,000 children who were born in the UK between 2000 and 2002. It analysed children who were living with both parents at nine months old until age 11, focusing on the four per cent of the children whose parents separated before they reached age seven.

Even with this relatively large sample, the research also highlighted some of the limitations of analysing secondary data. Professor Sigle said: “To really understand why some children’s wellbeing appears to be harmed by the separation process while others do not, a larger sample is needed, as well as a deeper knowledge of their unique personal circumstances at each stage of the separation process.”

Another challenge is that the sample could not show whether separating couples who were less prone to conflict during their relationship would have had good outcomes for their children regardless of mediation. Professor Sigle said: “This relates to another longstanding problem with secondary data, that it can only show what things look like, rather than evaluate the effectiveness of mediation as a policy."

Professor Sigle added: "In other words, while this analysis shows an association between mediation and children’s wellbeing, it does not offer an explanation for the reasons why this might be the case.”

The natural extension of this research is to try to achieve a better sense of what these families looked like prior to separation, and then look at whether mediation helped reduce parental conflict. Professor Sigle said: “We have evidence parental conflict is associated with poor outcomes in kids. This might support a move towards mediation, and any policies which address parental conflict prior to and during separation are likely to be a good idea.”

Additional notes

Wendy Sigle is Professor of Gender and Family Studies at the Gender Institute. She has worked on a variety of issues related to families and family policy in historical and contemporary societies.

The full report, Child outcomes after parental separation: variations by contact and court involvement, was released by the Ministry of Justice in February 2016.

Image: Divorce scrabble 2 (CC BY 2.0)

Posted April 2016.