Couples going through separation will be required to seek mediation to settle disputes before attending court in a bid to protect children and free up court time.

The confidential process of mediation involves an independent and impartial mediator to help those going through a dispute negotiate and come to a solution.

The plans set for England and Wales will see parents try to settle their child custody and finances through a mediator – court action would only be a last resort.

Up to 19,000 separating families could resolve their issues this way, meaning 36,000 vulnerable families who need the most protection could receive faster hearings and quicker resolutions due to reduced family court backlogs and pressures, according to the Ministry of Justice (MOJ).

However, the plans would only apply to family court cases deemed to be low-level; those involving allegations or a history of domestic violence would not be included in the mandatory plan.

Judges could order parents to make reasonable attempts to mediate under the plan, and if they don’t reasonably comply and are deemed to harm a child’s well-being by dragging out court proceedings, they could face a fine.

Justice Secretary Dominic Raab said: “When parents drag out their separation through lengthy and combative courtroom battles it impacts on their children’s school work, mental health and quality of life.

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“Our plans will divert thousands of time-consuming family disputes away from the courts – to protect children and ensure the most urgent cases involving domestic abuse survivors are heard by a court as quickly as possible.”

The government has a family mediation voucher scheme in place that will be extended until April 2025 due to an additional £15 million in funding, the MOJ said.

Vouchers worth up to £500 are given to separating families to help them solve disputes through mediation, and the process has so far supported more than 15,300 families, the department said.

Those who qualify for legal aid can benefit from free mediation services.

John Taylor, chair of the Family Mediation Council, said: “Family mediation can play a really positive role in producing better outcomes for separating families, and in reducing the burden on courts.

“This consultation shows that ministers recognise its value in helping separating couples make parenting and financial arrangements without the stress and delays involved in going to court.”

The proposals will be subject to a government consultation for 12 weeks from 23 March, closing on 15 June.