Mediating about your pets
Separating couples who come to mediation are often facing difficulties relating to their finances, their property, or their children. Mediation supports those couples to communicate about these difficulties and come to fair agreements as to how to divide their finances, share their property, and spend time with their children following the separation. But what about pets? Recently at Direct Mediation Services we have seen an unprecedented increase in couples coming to mediation to discuss their loved pets and how to agree on spending time with them in post-separation life. Whilst this blog post discusses dogs, we have also mediated on cases involving cats and horses!
A family is a family no matter human or canine, and so we understand how difficult it can be to decide who keeps a beloved pet after separation or divorce. Our dogs are as much part of the family as our parents, siblings, and children. The presence in the home, the walks, the naughtiness(!) is part of life and is certainly loved. However, the law does not recognise this nor offer protection for separating couples and their dogs. Generally, the Courts would perceive the pet as a tangible material possession, a replaceable item. At Court, you may be able to claim the purchase costs of the pet, for example. Dog owners know this is not the case and our dear fur baby is far from replaceable!
Mediation on the other hand is a far better alternative which appreciates the importance of your pet and offers the flexibility for you to make fair and shared decisions on ensuring you both spend time with them following separation. A core principle of mediation is “self-determination” meaning that you are in charge of making the decisions on the agenda points which you set. So long as the agreements you propose are fair and do not contradict legal principles, there is no reason they cannot be formalised.
For example, there is no objection for participants at mediation to set “arrangements for our dog” as an agenda point as part of the mediation process. This can then be discussed with your impartial mediator present with a view to reaching some form of proposal as to how best to move forward. The mediation process and environment can allow you to reach agreements that most likely never would be ordered by a Court.
How does mediation work?
However, in summary, the mediation process is as follows:
- Each participant to the mediation process attends their own separate individual Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAM). The MIAM is a completely confidential meeting and the areas discussed will not be shared with the other party. The MIAM is a chance for you to meet your mediator and discuss your case. As the name of the meeting suggests, its purpose is to provide you with information about mediation and the process, and also to assess the suitability of your case.
- Following your MIAM, if both participants agree to mediate and the case is suitable, you will move to joint sessions. The joint sessions will either be face to face or “shuttle”. Shuttle is where the participants do not see each other during the mediation sessions and your mediator will facilitate dialogue by going between the two of you. Shuttle is used where there are specific issues preventing face to face dialogue, such as safeguarding or domestic violence. If you would like shuttle mediation, you should discuss this with your mediator during the MIAM.
- At your joint sessions (on average participants attend between 2 – 5 depending on the complexity of the case) you will set your agenda points (areas for discussion) and work with your mediator to attempt to reach proposals and agreements on these matters.
- Following your joint sessions, if you have reached an agreement, you can request for a “Memorandum of Understanding” which is a legally privileged document that summarises the proposals you have made. Legally privileged means that it cannot be relied on in Court and is subject to confidentiality. However, you can receive legal advice on this and ask your solicitor to draft it into a legally binding order, known as a consent order.
- If you fail to reach an agreement, your mediator will provide you with a certificate that shows that you have attempted mediation. You can use this to make an application to the Courts.
The following case study illustrates how mediation can support participants in disputes over their dog in practice.
Mediation is a voluntary process in which a mediator facilitates communication between parties. The mediator is impartial and does not take sides. Say for example, a recently divorced couple had a pet dog called Jerry. Michelle is moving out of the matrimonial home and wants to take Jerry along. Robert also has a special bond with their dear pet and wants to keep Jerry. The couple argue and have a dispute regarding who gets to keep the dog. To make an agreement, the two parties came to mediation and were able to come to a mutual agreement.
At their first mediation session, Robert and Michelle set their agenda points, one of which were “Who gets to keep Jerry”. The participants were very positional in that it was “all or nothing” – one of us gets to keep Jerry, which means you will never see him again! Michelle and Robert were very angry with each other for many reasons, which is indeed common whilst going through the stresses and strains that is divorce. It was no wonder they were facing these challenges.
The mediator worked with Michelle and Robert to discuss Jerry. At first, both participants were putting forward arguments as to why they should be the person to keep Jerry. They were focused on the only outcome being that only one of them could have Jerry and there were no other alternatives.
Michelle: “I paid for him!”
Robert: “You gave him to me as a gift!”
Michelle: “I walked him every day!”.
Robert: “I bought all his food!”
It is clear how important Jerry is to both Robert and Michelle. The mediator presented a different approach: rather than discussing who gets to keep Jerry, how about how can both parties spend time with Jerry?
As with child arrangements, separating couples must discuss the difficult notion of the family home no longer being the sole base where all members of the family see and spend time together every day. Instead, new arrangements must be put in place where the children effectively have two stable homes with either parent. Why can this not be the case with a pet?
By reframing this idea, Michelle and Robert were able to perceive the issue differently. Why couldn’t they both spend time with Jerry? Why couldn’t Jerry have two homes? The conversation then changed from arguments as to why one of them should get to keep Jerry instead to conversations about how this could work.
Now, Jerry lives a very happy life in two lovely homes with two loving “parents”. Jerry lives with mum for two weeks and then goes to live with dad for two weeks. Michelle and Jerry meet in their local park to hand Jerry to one another. He goes away on two holidays a year – one to Cornwall and one to Scotland!
At Direct Mediation Services, we are committed to supporting you in resolving any issues impacting your family post separation. We recognise and include our dear pets in this commitment. Whilst this blog post has focused on dogs, which is what we are commonly seeing, there is no reason you cannot come to mediate on your other pets too: your cat, your budgie, your horse, maybe even your goldfish! Whatever the problem, Direct Mediation Services will ensure a safe space and a listening ear for you and your family.
Remember that family mediation is a voluntary process and is an opportunity for you to come up with workable and fair agreements. As mentioned earlier, self-determination is a core principle of mediation and means that you will create your own agreements. Your mediator will not do this for you! Sometimes, mediation does not work and in these cases, Court is your last resort. Trever Cooper at Cooper & Co solicitors is a specialist in dog law matters, you can find his website here.
You should think very carefully before engaging in the timely and costly process that is Court. Your mediator will be happy to discuss this with you in more detail during your Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAM).
Dog ownership disputes are increasing and people facing these issues need somewhere to turn to that is not the Court system. Direct Mediation Services have a wealth of experience in the family unit and the disputes that arise. We are here to facilitate communication and offer support to both you and your pets.
If you would like to arrange for mediation to discuss arrangements for your pet, or simply would like an informal chat about mediation and the process, then contact us today on 0113 468 9593, or via email to [email protected]
We all love our pets here at DMS – here is our managing partner Stuart Hanson with Barnaby and our firms supervisor, Jan Coulton, with Gunter!
Want to known more about family mediation?
You can call Direct Mediation Services on 0113 4689593, email [email protected] or complete the form below for a free call back.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do I have a legal right to my pet?
Not necessarily. The law perceives pets as property - they have value and are replaceable. You do not have a right to spend time with your dog In the same way a child. However, that does not mean there is nothing you can do.
How can mediation help me?
One of the best things about mediation is the flexibility it gives you to discuss matters that may not necessarily arise in the Family Court. During your mediation you will set your own agenda which will include various points for discussion. There is no reason why this cannot include your dog or your cat and proposals can be made how best to move forward. If you wish, you can be provided with a written agreement that specifies the arrangements for your pet which you and your ex-partner can refer to in the future.
Is the written agreement legally binding?
No. Written agreements at mediation are not legally binding at first, but you may be able to turn them into legally binding consent orders through the help of your solicitor.
How much does it cost?
Mediation costs £120 per person per hour. We are contracted with the Legal Aid Agency and can offer publicly funded mediation to those who receive welfare benefits or a low income. However, if you are solely mediating on your pets you will not be eligible for this service.
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