Mapping paths to family justice

This ESRC-funded interdisciplinary project aimed to provide critical evidence about the usage, experience and outcomes of the three different forms of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) in family law currently available in the UK - Solicitor Negotiation, Mediation and Collaborative Law, at a time when these alternatives to court are likely to become increasingly used. The relative merits of these alternatives had never been investigated. This project has done so, and thus is providing an evidence base to inform future decisions by policy-makers, funders, practitioners and disputing couples. The Creating Paths to Family Justice project aims to develop 'real world' impact from this project by developing online and offline family mediation and information services.

This project ran from July 2011 - September 2014. 

You can read our key findings in a downloadable report here.

Methods

This project used a mixed methods approach. First, a set of questions on a nationally representative survey, followed by interviews with lawyers, mediators and parties with experience of different styles of ADR. Finally, recordings and analysis of a selection of mediations, collaborative law sessions and lawyer-client interviews were undertaken. Findings from the three phases were synthesised in order to arrive at an overall 'map' of family dispute resolution pathways.

Background to the project

The overall aim of the study was to undertake a ‘bottom up’ comparative analysis of the most common forms of out of court FDRs, to provide a substantial, up-to-date evidence base.

More specifically, its objectives were:

  • To provide an up-to-date picture of awareness and experiences of three forms of out of court family dispute resolution:
    • solicitor negotiations
    • mediation
    • collaborative law
  • To produce a ‘map’ of family dispute resolution pathways and consider which pathways are most ‘appropriate’ for which cases and parties
  • To consider which (if any) norms are embedded in these different processes
  • To provide research evidence to inform policy and consider best practice

There is a widespread perception that the family justice system is in crisis and that escalating demands on family court and legal aid resources cannot be met. In this context, successive governments have promoted mediation as a preferred means of resolving family disputes out of court. As we go into an era of public funding cuts and economic austerity, diversion away from the family courts is likely to be further encouraged. Mediation is, however, strongly challenged by two alternative forms of out-of-court family dispute resolution: the traditional negotiation between the parties' solicitors, which appears to be the default option for most parties; and a relative newcomer, collaborative law, in which the parties and their solicitors work together to reach a resolution against a background commitment by all participants not to resort to court proceedings.

The major conceptual contribution of the research was its focus on the norms of family dispute resolution (such as child welfare, equality, rights or fault) that fare best within each dispute resolution process. Dewar (1998) highlighted the fact that family law incorporates a plurality of (sometimes competing) policies and standards for decision-making. The norms to be applied when a court decides a particular family law case are relatively clear, but in out-of-court dispute resolution, a range of normative expectations may be brought to the table by the parties, and may be promoted by the lawyers or mediators involved. The normative outcomes of family dispute resolution processes matter because of their fairness or otherwise to the parties, their impact on the parties' children, and the commitment of public funds to these processes.

Anne Barlow, Professor of Family Law and Policy at the University of Exeter.

Rosemary Hunter, Professor of Law and Socio-Legal Studies at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL).

Janet Smithson, Research Fellow in the School of Law, Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Exeter.

Jan Ewing, Research Associate at the University of Kent. Jan qualified as a solicitor in 1992. She has an M.Jur, Durham, 2004, and has recently been awarded a Ph.D.at the University of Cambridge, for a thesis entitled "Maintaining and enhancing marital quality: An examination of the mechanisms by which marriages become more or less satisfactory over the first four years".

Charlotte Bishop, Research Associate at the University of Exeter. Charlotte has recently submitted her Ph.D. thesis on gender and domestic violence. As well as working on the Mapping project she is a teaching fellow in the School of Law.

Previous members of the Mapping research team include:

Kate Getliffe, Research Associate at the University of Exeter. Kate has recently been awarded a Ph.D. for her thesis on the relationship between regulation and public opinion using case studies from genetic technologies, at the Centre for Genomics in Society at the University of Exeter.

Paulette Morris, Research Associate at the University of Exeter. Paulette is a family mediator who is also working on a Ph.D. about mediation at Brunel University.

We held our final conference in June 2014 and produced a briefing paper for the key findings of this project. 

You can also download our powerpoint slides from the final conference presentations - Mapping conference slides session 1 and Mapping conference slides session 2.

We have and continue to disseminate in a wide range of publications and conferences. To date, the project aims and methodology, and findings from the project have been disseminated in the following places:

Publications

Barlow, A., Hunter R, Smithson J, Ewing J, Paths to Justice in Divorce Cases in England and Wales, in Maclean M, Eekelaar J, Bastard B (eds) Paths to Justice in Divorce Cases in England and Wales, Oxford: Hart Publishing Ltd, 2015, 145-162

Barlow, A., Hunter, R., Smithson, J., Ewing, J., Getliffe, K. and Morris, P. (2013), Mapping Paths to Family Justice - a National Picture of Findings on Out of Court Family Dispute Resolution. Family Law 43/3: pp 306-10.

Barlow, A. Out-of-court Family Dispute Resolution. The lessons of experience. Family Law May 2014 Special Issue.

This project drew on the expertise of an Advisory Group drawn from academic, legal professional and policy backgrounds. The Advisory group met regularly during the project, and members provided feedback at each stage.

The authors would like to thank the parties and practitioners who contributed to the project and without whom the study would not have been possible.

The Advisory Group consisted of the following members:

James Carroll - Solicitor and Law Society Family Law Committee member

Lester Coleman & Mariya Stoilova – One Plus One

Sarah Lloyd - Director of the Family Mediation Council, Consultant Dispute Resolution Director at Resolution.

Mavis Maclean - – Oxford Centre for Family, Law and Policy and Ministry of Justice research consultant.

Ashish Patel - Senior Researcher, Ministry of Justice, formerly Legal Services Research Centre.

Janet Reibstein - Psychologist and relationship specialist, University of Exeter.

Jane Robey - CEO National Family Mediation.

Beverley Sayers - Family Mediation Association mediator and Resolution member and Former Chair of the Family Justice Council’s Alternative Dispute Resolution Committee.

If you would like further information about the project, please contact the research team on: mapping@exeter.ac.uk

Details for individual team members:

Janet Smithson, email: j.smithson@exeter.ac.uk

Anne Barlow, Tel +44 (0)1392 263159, email: A.E.Barlow@exeter.ac.uk

Rosemary Hunter, Tel +44 (0)1227 824901 Email: rosemary.hunter@qmul.ac.uk

Jan Ewing, email: J.Ewing@kent.ac.uk