Warring couples on the brink of divorce are being offered help from a new charity launched today.
Family Mediation Northern Ireland (FMNI) aims to avoid break-ups developing into bitter and costly court battles.
The charity’s highly-trained mediators work first with clients to open a channel of communication – and then encourage them to begin negotiating with each other.
With issues of access often at the centre of wrangles, FMNI said it recognised the need to safeguard the human rights of children involved.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states every child has the right to family life.
Latest figures show that divorce is on the rise in the North, with more than 2,500 marriages being dissolved in 2004.
FMNI believe more than 2,000 children under 16 were caught up in the break-ups.
Publicly funded mediation has been on offer in Britain and the Republic for more than 20 years – but not in the North.
But after winning the support of a number of judges and lawyers who view it as a welcome alternative to legal battles, FMNI hope ministers may consider helping them out.
Sheena Bell, lead practitioner at FMNI, said: “We believe that mediation is essential for couples who are experiencing conflict during their separation or divorce.
“Without this kind of help, the process can mean emotional turmoil, both for the couple and of course the children. On top of that, it is financially draining in terms of legal costs.”
At the moment the organisation was only offering a service to those who knew about them and could afford to pay, she said.
But Ms Bell added: “Having achieved charitable status, we hope to attract enough funding from elsewhere to allow us to offer our services more widely.
“We believe £100,000 (€146,000) a year would allow us to assist 80 families – and that is our first objective.”
Ultimately FMNI would like to be able to offer its services right across the North.