Divorcing couples are increasingly seeking mediation themselves rather than through a solicitor, new figures have revealed.
The National Family Mediation (NFM) service said the number of non-solicitor referred cases rose to 51% in the first half of this year. This was a significant increase on the same period in 2013, when 19% of referrals to mediators came from non-solicitor sources.
In the first half of 2012 the figure was 9.6%.
The 2014 figures are the first that take into account the full effects of legal aid cuts introduced in April 2013 with the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act. They also include the period after April 2014 when legislation made it compulsory for couples to attend a mediation assessment before applying for a court order.
Jane Robey, chief executive of NFM, said the service's website has seen a 'huge rise' in visits as people increasingly seek help themselves rather than visit a solicitor.
'The legal aid changes have caused referrals from solicitors to family mediators to collapse,' she said. 'The referral process has been flipped on its head with more and more people self-researching their options before making any commitments.'
In a speech to Birmingham Law Society last month, Robey called for closer collaboration between lawyers and family mediators.
She also stated that the increase in unrepresented people is affecting the service that mediators are able to provide.
'Those who used to approach us had, more often than not, had the benefit of some early legal advice which provided some realism about the options available and helped to manage client expectation,' she said.
Meanwhile, justice minister Simon Hughes has announced that from now on the first mediation session will now be funded for both parties, provided at least one is already legally aided.
He also confirmed the Family Mediation Council will introduce a compulsory accreditation scheme in January to ensure high standards.
'Our objective is to see more people resolving issues and reaching agreements on their own terms through mediation,' added Hughes.