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The newly released census figures again highlight the ongoing increase in separation and divorce in Ireland, which as I have said in my last two blogs, is particularly hard on children. But there is one light on the legal horizon for Irish children. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence Mr. Alan Shatter, T.D. has secured Government approval for the general scheme of a Mediation Bill which was published just weeks ago. I’ve long been an advocate of alternative methods of resolving disputes, particularly in child and family matters, and so I welcome this Bill as a positive step forward. A Judge hearing any case, can invite parties to a dispute to consider mediation or, can direct parties to attend a mediation information session.

Why is the Minister introducing this Bill?

The Minister is on record as saying that the general objective of the Bill is to “promote mediation as a viable, effective and efficient alternative to court proceedings thereby reducing legal costs, speeding up the resolution of disputes and relieving the stress involved in court proceedings. I am anxious to ensure that individuals and companies engaged in a dispute regard resolution of their dispute through mediation as preferable to court litigation.” This bill seeks to integrate mediation into the civil justice system as a mainstream alternative to litigation. In so doing, this bill should encourage and facilitate wider use of mediation.

So what’s so good for children in this Mediation Bill?

This Bill contains specific acknowledgement that the child can in certain situations be involved in the mediation. This is not completely unqualified – it is subject to the mediator involved, and the parties’ wishes, but is a massive step forward in encouraging the participation of children in a process that affects them greatly. It is aimed at providing for the voice of the child to be heard in the mediation process. It is a step forward in terms including children’s voices and rights into the process of resolving relationship disputes.

As a family law mediator, I have witnessed first-hand the difference Mediation can make in the outcomes of children coming through their parents separation. Ultimately the children fare better, and the parents can communicate better about issues concerning the children. A report conducted by McIntosh & Long in 2006, concluded that child-inclusive mediation has more beneficial results for parents and children than mediation in which children’s voices were not heard. Mothers and fathers reported greater satisfaction with the child’s living and contact arrangements one year later.

The Minister is asking the Joint Oireachtas Committee for Justice, Defence and Equality to revert to him on the Mediation Bill no later than the 1 June next with any views the committee may have. Let’s hope he can stick to this schedule, and that the Bill makes speedy progress.

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