Mediation best option for families
Our story today that more than 20 decisions are being made each day in Northern Ireland's courts under the Children Order is a distressing commentary on family life in the province. It portrays a growing culture of family break-ups with hapless children often caught in the middle of warring parents.
Almost half of all the orders made by the courts are for the times when each parent can see their child or children and with which parent the child or children should reside.
Courts by their nature are adversarial, which can lead to heightened tension between parents whose relationship has already broken down. Indeed, in the more extreme situations the quarrel over custody or visitation rights can be simply another weapon used by one or both parents to further hurt each other.
Quite what the long-term impact on the children caught in the middle will be is difficult to assess but it is surely far removed from the atmosphere most parents would wish to create for their family.
Commentary on the statistics reveals how the nature of family life in the province is rapidly changing. Figures from 2013 show that the parents of 2,400 children divorced and that there is an increasing number of children produced from casual relationships.
But even the most casual relationships bring with them both rights and obligations and chief among them should be deciding on what is best for the future of those children irrespective of the feelings of the parents towards each other. The children should not be treated by their parents as so much collateral damage when a relationship breaks down.
In that respect is going to court always the best option? It appears it is the default position adopted by many parents, yet there is another way. Mediation, through which parents seek to resolve their difficulties in a more mature, reflective manner rather than simply confronting each other in a courtroom should be the first option.
The problem, as ever, is money. Family Mediation NI - the largest provider of such services in the province - only received enough money to assist 750 families to reach agreement without going to court in the period under analysis. That shows a skewed priority towards the fundamental building block of society, the family unit, and should be addressed as a matter of urgency by the incoming Executive.