How long does family mediation take?

Family mediation is a process in which a neutral third party, known as a mediator, helps people involved in a divorce or relationship breakdown reach agreements about unresolved issues. These issues commonly include matters such as child arrangements and the division of the family finance, including what is going to happen to the family home and other financial matters.

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Many separating couples choose to use family mediation because they rightly see it as a less stressful and more affordable alternative than using solicitors or going to court and, because mediation is collaborative rather than confrontational, it tends to be a much quicker and less confrontational option. But, how long does family mediation take exactly?

The length of time that family mediation takes will vary depending on the specific circumstances of the case. Factors that can influence the duration of mediation include not only the type of issues being discussed and their complexity, but also the willingness of the participants to compromise and be flexible in their approach.

Family mediation involves a number of meetings between the disputing couple, facilitated by an expert mediator. Usually the couple are in the same room but they can, where the individuals find it too distressing to be in the same space, be in separate rooms with the mediator “shuttling” between the rooms. Each meeting will usually last somewhere between one and two hours. Depending on the number and complexity of the issues being discussed, the number of meetings will vary but typically there will be between two and five meetings.

The mediator will manage the pace of mediation so that there is on the one hand sufficient time between meetings for the participants to undertake various tasks, such as get further information or take legal advice but also so that a momentum is maintained. Of course, mediation is entirely voluntary and flexible so that the participants can themselves influence how often and when they meet. But, leaving aside any delays introduced by the participants, you could normally expect a child mediation to take a couple of months or so to get to a concluded parenting plan and a financial mediation to take about four months to get to a Memorandum setting out the terms of the settlement.

The length of the family mediation process is finite. It doesn’t just go on and on. It is the mediator’s goal to help you and the other participant reach an agreement. Where the mediator does not foresee an agreement being met, having explored all the options for a settlement, the mediator will suggest that you try an alternative method to resolve the dispute, such as court. This avoids drawing out the mediation process longer than necessary.

Whilst the exact length of time will vary from case to case, mediation is invariably quicker than the court process.

What is the family mediation process?

The first step in the family mediation process is typically an initial consultation, (known as a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting or MIAM), which is when the mediator will meet with each party separately to discuss their concerns and goals for the mediation.

This consultation helps the mediator to understand the issues at hand and to assess whether mediation is an appropriate course of action. The mediator will be able to provide information about the costs of mediation and the likely number of meetings.

Once the initial assessment process has been completed with both participants and it’s been determined that mediation is appropriate, the mediator will schedule a series of meetings, where both parties will have the opportunity to discuss their concerns and, with the help of the mediator, come up with a resolution.

Mediation is a process and follows a broadly similar series of stage, whatever the issues that are being discussed. The first stage of the process is establishing what the issues are for each of the participants. The second stage is gathering information so that these issues can be properly considered. Next, the mediator will help the parties generate and explore different options for resolving their dispute. They’ll help to assist the parties in identifying their interests and needs, and will then help to generate options for resolving the dispute that take these interests and needs into account.

The final stage is sorting out the finer details of the preferred way forward and reality testing it so that both participants can see that it will work in practice. If an agreement can be reached, this will be put into a formal document and can be submitted to a court for approval where necessary.

This process can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months depending on the type, number and complexity of the issues.

Family mediation is designed to be a flexible and responsive process that can be adapted to meet the unique needs of each family. Whether you're resolving a single issue or looking to address multiple concerns, the mediator will work with you to create a schedule that fits your needs and helps you reach a resolution as efficiently as possible.

How the length of time may differ by case

Although every mediation broadly follows the same steps, what is involved in each of these steps will vary depending on the type and complexity of issues that need to be resolved. There are two main types of family mediation - mediation about children issues and mediation about financial and property matters.

We take a look at these main different types of mediation below.

How long does child mediation take?

Child mediations tend to fall into two main groups - those where a single issue has arisen and needs to be sorted and those where parents have recently separated and are wanting help in working out the best arrangements for their children now that they as parents are no longer living together. In the latter type of situation, parents will usually want to think about a whole range of issues - what is the normal pattern of when each child will spend time with each parent, what will happen in school holidays and at Christmas, what about birthdays and other special occasions, how will the parents keep each other informed and so on.

Whereas a single issue mediation may take as little as two joint sessions, a mediation which leads to a parenting plan is likely to require three sessions.

There are a variety of additional factors to consider in any kind of mediation, though in child mediation, it’s particularly important to focus on the child or children’s needs. In cases where children are involved, the mediator will always consider the wishes and feelings of the child as a priority. This is vital information that the mediator will frequently ask about, and can even speak to your child as part of the mediation process to understand their perspective.

Children can sometimes be unsure or have mixed feelings about their parents separating. They can often find it hard to explain their feelings to their parents for fear of upsetting them. At Mediation First, we have mediators who are specially trained to meet with your children.

Our trained mediators can offer child consultation, speaking with your child or children separately in order to listen to their wishes and feelings. Child inclusive mediation helps children benefit from this chance to express their perspective. The mediator can then feed back to the parents the information and messages that the child wants them to hear. Understanding your child's views helps you to see the whole picture, so you can find better solutions for the whole family.

When trying to understand how long mediation might take, it’s also useful to consider what potential steps you might need to take after mediation is complete. For example, whether you need to follow up with a court order to make your mediation agreement legally binding.

In cases of child mediation, it’s not very common for agreements to be followed up in court. For instance, a parenting plan agreed in mediation and then signed by the parents is usually enough for most participants, without submitting it to the court for approval.

How long does financial and property mediation take?

Financial mediation focuses specifically on issues related to the financial aspects of a separation or divorce - typically, what is going to happen to the family home, the division of any savings and investments, ongoing financial support, and pensions.

Like other forms of mediation, this process can vary greatly depending on a variety of factors, such as the number and complexity of the couple’s assets and sources of income.

The information gathering part of the process is essential as it’s vital that the mediator and both participants have a complete and accurate picture of the overall finances, with documentation to back up this information. The efficiency of the mediation process will inevitably be greatly assisted where the participants provide all this paperwork in an organised and timely way.

Where the financial information is provided on time and in a transparent and comprehensive way, financial mediations typically require three to four joint sessions in cases where the couple’s financial situation is fairly straightforward and up to five sessions where the couple’s finances are more complex or where there are complicating factors.

One of the advantages of mediation is its flexibility. Sorting out a financial settlement in even the most complex situations is possible using mediation. At Mediation First we have experienced mediators with a huge amount of legal and financial expertise to ensure that the necessary information is made available for the participants to understand their options. We can also include other professionals in the mediation sessions where additional expertise is required. For example, here at Mediation First, we regularly involve pension actuaries in the mediation sessions where a couple’s financial situation includes substantial pension provision. This enables the couple to better understand all the options so that they can find solutions that work and make best use of their resources.

In regard to how long financial mediation takes, it’s important to bear in mind that most financial agreements are taken to court in order to make the agreement legally binding. Although this involves an additional step after mediation once an agreement has been reached, it is straightforward and inexpensive; most importantly it ensures that the settlement you have arrived at cannot subsequently be changed or gone back on. Although this involves an extra step, it is justified since it offers financial protection and security for both parties.

Other factors that could lengthen the mediation process

1. Reluctance to compromise: if you want to find a mutually acceptable resolution to your dispute, you are both going to have to be flexible and compromise. There is no alternative and, if one or other participant is unwilling to move their position at all, it’s unlikely that a way forward will be found however experienced the mediator might be - and the process is likely to become more drawn out.

2. Not preparing for mediation: it’s important to be prepared to make the most out of your mediation sessions. It’s understandable not to want to think about difficult and worrying issues but not paying them proper attention will only postpone the inevitable and make the process more protracted. Your mediator will help you understand exactly what documents or information you need to bring before the sessions begin. Ensuring that you bring the necessary documentation will help avoid disruption to the process.

3. Delaying or postponing mediation sessions: sorting out issues in mediation is often a very painful process for some participants especially if they do not want the relationship to end or if they feel hurt or betrayed by the other person. Although they may agree to mediation, they may secretly be doing so not in order to bring the relationship to an end but instead they may be using the process to delay the final parting of the ways.

For mediation to work, both participants need to be fully engaged and willing to act in good faith. Where it becomes clear that one participant is unable for whatever reason to do this, then it may be sensible for the other person to bring mediation to a close and instead use the court process to bring about a resolution to the dispute. For all the disadvantages of the court process - time, cost and stress - it has one unique advantage which is that it can force a reluctant party to engage. Unlike mediation which is a voluntary process, the court sets out a timetable and specifies what each party has to do - and most importantly has the power to sanction and penalise either individual if they fail to comply with these requirements. Court should always be viewed as a last resort but it is a route to be seriously considered where it becomes clear that one party is unwilling or unable to engage in a more constructive way.

How to make the best use of your time in mediation

Mediation is not something that most people are familiar with. In order to make the best use of your time, it’s helpful to do some reading beforehand and understand what you can do to make the process as smooth as possible. Some top tips include:

1. Be realistic: before attending mediation, take some time to think about what you can realistically hope to achieve. If you’ve been in dispute about an issue for weeks and even months, sometimes with the involvement of lawyers, it’s unrealistic to expect that you’re going to sort the issues out in a single session. Mediation is a process that demands patience. You have to do the preparatory work before you can move on to the next stage. Mediators are experts at putting in place the building blocks so you have all the relevant information to explore your options. Take one step at a time to stand the best chance of finding a solution that works for the whole family.

2. Prepare to compromise: family mediation is a collaborative process that involves reaching a mutually acceptable agreement. This always requires some compromise on both sides. Mediation works best when both sides are open to alternative solutions and are willing to consider the perspectives and needs of others.

3. Trust your mediator: your mediator wants to help you find a way forward as efficiently as possible and knows what will maximise the likelihood of that. If your mediator asks you to get some information for the next meeting, they are doing so only because they know it will be important to have it available at the next stage of discussions. A delay in doing whatever homework is given to you by the mediator may increase the number of mediation sessions, so ensure you make a note of what you need to do and then action it as a priority.

4. Be respectful: sorting out the practical arrangements following the breakdown of a relationship is bound to be emotional and tensions can easily run high, especially when addressing sensitive issues such as how much time your children will be spending with each parent or how you are going to deal with the family home. Remember to be respectful and professional, and avoid making personal attacks or trying to score points. This sort of behaviour is likely to derail the conversation and potentially lengthen the process. Your mediator can and will help maintain constructive dialogue and will do everything they can to refocus the conversation but you can do your bit as well by adopting a polite and constructive attitude towards the other person.

For further reading on this subject, we also have an article on the 9 tips for a successful mediation that you might find useful.

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If you're considering family mediation, we hope this article has been helpful. Mediation First’s team of experienced mediators can provide you with the support and guidance you need to navigate the mediation process and reach a mutually acceptable agreement.

Contact us to learn more about our services and how we can help you resolve your family disputes.