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Mediation cuts dispute resolution costs, says Chief Justice

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

Irish Times, September 16 2010

CAROL COULTER Legal Affairs Editor

LEGAL AID BOARD CONFERENCE: THE GOVERNMENT should foster and promote a professional mediation service and alter the perception of the courts as the first and only resort for dispute resolution, the Chief Justice has said.

Mr Justice John Murray told the 30th anniversary conference of the Legal Aid Board that this would not require major expenditure, and would reduce the overall cost of dispute resolution.

He said it was particularly appropriate in family law given that litigation can exacerbate the existing difficulties arising from a breakdown in family relationships.

“Given the State’s recognition of the family as a social unit of fundamental importance in society, it is essential that it ensures that there are systems and resources in place to address and resolve the serious issues to which family breakdowns so often give rise,” he said. “Mediation in particular is a vital tool in addressing family disputes, particularly where the welfare and future of children is at stake.”

He pointed to UK research showing the cost in legal aid fees of mediating family disputes was half that of litigating them. Given the pressure on Legal Aid Board and court resources, the need to encourage and invest in use of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) as a primary option for citizens where it can be effective has never been more pressing, he said.

Yet mediation and other forms of ADR remain on the margins of family law and civil law generally, and this would continue unless the State began to foster a culture of ADR with vigour and purpose.

President McAleese also urged greater use of ADR to resolve legal issues in a more humane way.

Legal Aid Board chairwoman Anne Colley said the cost associated with providing legal aid could be more than offset by its prevention of further problems that imposed a heavier cost on society.

She pointed to research in other jurisdictions which showed the business case for legal aid. Research here and in other jurisdictions showed those with legal problems often reported adverse consequences including ill-health, stress-related problems, loss of income or employment, violence or damage to property, breakdown of relationships, or loss of one’s home.

Ministry of Justice economists in the UK estimated that, over a three-and-a-half-year period, unresolved law-related problems cost individuals and the public purse £13 billion (€15.6 billion).

Other UK research showed savings could range from £2.34 in the area of housing for every £1 spent on legal aid to £8.80 in the area of benefits.

“It is clear that failure to resolve the more serious problems in a speedy and equitable manner creates considerable adverse consequences both for the individuals involved, their families, their working and social lives and ultimately the State,” Ms Colley said.

In the future, she said, there would be a move in appropriate cases away from the adversarial court environment towards ADR.