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Expansion urged for divorce mediation

Ben Ferry
Ben Ferry

Lawmakers want divorce mediation programs to go statewide. The programs help resolve custody and property differences quickly and avoid prolonged legal battles.

"The goal is to reap the benefits of mediation statewide," said Rep. Ben Ferry, R-Corinne. "I am sold on the value of mediation."

Ferry, the sponsor of the proposal, also sold his colleagues on the measure during Wednesday's meeting of the Legislature's interim Judiciary Committee, which voted to unanimously move the bill forward.

Mediation programs used in 2nd and 3rd District Courts require divorcing couples to undergo mediation if there is a dispute arising regarding their children.

Ferry's proposal would take it one step further by requiring all couples, regardless of children, to sit down for one mediation session if there is an issue in a dispute such as division of property.

"The numbers show that 70 to 80 percent of the divorces already involve children, so by extending it to all, we are picking up a few more," Ferry said.

"The hope is that we can reduce the pressure on the court system by having people go to mediation."

The bill, in part, is a collaborative effort stemming from work by lawmakers on the interim committee, as well as members of a special ad-hoc group formed to look at cost-effective alternatives to case-clogged court systems.

Ferry believes the program can be introduced to all corners of the state with a simple $75,000 annual appropriation — $65,000 for pay for a mediation program coordinator and $10,000 to cover cases with indigent parties.

"I do not foresee a tax or a fee to cover those costs. I believe the savings will be realized in reduced dockets of the judges and less need to grow the judicial system."

Most discussion Wednesday centered on possibly levying a fee and the appropriate time to make couples pay — all who file for marriage or only those who seek divorce.

Rep. Susan Lawrence, R-East Millcreek, said she would be "affronted" if she was trying to get a marriage license and was told she would have to pay a fee in case she was divorced.

"Not all couples get divorced."

Her response came in reaction to a proposal by Sen. James Evans, R-Salt Lake, to make paying for the program a sort of user fee assessed to all marrying couples — such as $2.50 per license.

"Those who create the problem would pay for it."

Ferry resisted the funding mechanisms for the measure, saying he didn't think the fiscal bite merited a new tax or fee.

"Divorce is such a stressful situation in and of itself," he said.

Rep. Scott Daniels, D-Salt Lake, agreed there are benefits of mediation, citing studies that revealed long-term benefits to divorced couples.

Even after 12 years, the former judge said, couples who had gone through mediation reported "better outcomes" when it came to issues like child support and the relationships between children and noncustodial parents.

In contrast, a contested divorce in which sparring couples are entangled with the courts for years constitutes a system that is "terribly broken," he said. "Those fights damage a relationship in such a deep and important way that 12 years later, they're still not recovered."