Separating parents in Scotland should be made to try mediation before taking disputes to court, according to a family support charity.

Relationships Scotland has published a manifesto calling for an urgent debate to increase the uptake of mediation as an alternative to court action in family cases, and asking the Scottish Government, charities and family law experts to back its calls to make mediation the first choice for divorcing parents in order to keep children away from court action.

Although it cites research showing that parental conflict is one the top three causes of poor life chances for children, the charity says the level of awareness and understanding about family mediation is low. It wants all Scottish political parties to put in their manifestos that they will make it a legal requirement for divorcing couples to consider mediation and other forms of alternative dispute resolution before going to court, especially where children are involved.

A report by Holyrood's Justice Committee earlier this month concluded that Scottish family legislation was "showing its age" and that more cases in Scotland would benefit from mediation. The Scottish Legal Aid Board also now requires parents seeking a child contact order in legally aided cases to show that they have tried or considered mediation.

Relationships Scotland says that although family mediation has been available in Scotland for 30 years, takeup remains relatively low, with only about one in four divorcing parents using mediation, a figure that falls to one in 10 for all cases involving divorce and separation. Yet mediation is effective in around 70% of family cases referred, and while it might not be appropriate in every case, this can be talked about in an initial individual meeting with a mediator.

Legislation in England & Wales now requires separating couples involved in parenting or financial disputes to meet with a mediator prior to going to court, and the charity believes that Scotland is lagging behind.

Stuart Valentine, chief executive of Relationships Scotland, commented: “Parents often lose focus on their children as they battle with their ex-partner to determine who gets what, and who the children are going to live with. During a crisis or emotional meltdown it’s not realistic to expect parents to research all their options. Making it a requirement to consider mediation before going to court is the way forward.”

He added: “We welcome progress made by making it a requirement in legal aid cases. More needs to be done sooner to ensure all parents explore alternative methods of resolving disputes."

Cath Karlin, partner and accredited specialist in family law at bto solicitors, said: “Mediation has to be a better alternative to court for all concerned, but especially where there are children. The worst thing that parents can do for their children is remove the decision-making ability from the people who know their kids best and surrender that power to a stranger who has never met them. That is the reality when clients go to court. Mediation provides parents with a calm, facilitated environment where parents are given the time they need to come to a resolution that is in everyone’s interest.”