Couples who divorce or separate should be required to consider attending sessions with a mediator before hauling their family through court, according to a leading charity.

The call from Relationships Scotland would bring Scotland in line with England and Wales where the law demands couples who are wrestling with parenting or financial disputes to meet with a mediator prior to going to court.

It has been backed by family law specialists and families seeking support from Legal Aid are already asked to demonstrate that they have tried or considered mediation.

However voluntary take-up remains relatively low. Mediation has been available in Scotland for 30 years but only about one in four divorcing parents use mediation and this falls to one in ten for all cases involving divorce and separation.

Relationships Scotland says family law in Scotland is outdated and lags behind the rest of the UK. Demanding people consider using a mediator would help stop so many children getting caught up in divorce court conflicts, it said.

The charity is calling on all Scottish political parties to include a legal requirement for divorcing couples to consider mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution before going to court.

A report last week from the Justice Committee of the Scottish Parliament said Scotland's ten year old Family Law Act was ‘showing its age’ and said more cases in Scotland would benefit from mediation.

Research has suggested parental conflict is a key contributor to poor life chances for children, according to Relationships Scotland, the biggest provider of family and relationship support in the country.

Guidance from the Scottish Legal Aid Board was changed in December, to require parents on legal aid seeking a child contact order to demonstrate that they have tried or considered mediation.

Family law experts Cath Karlin of bto solicitors said there was a need for a step change in the use of alternatives to the courts, especially for cases involving children.

She 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.”

Father of two Neil Pryde, from Arbroath, went through successful mediation sessions when he was struggling to reach an agreement with his ex wife during their divorce. “We were struggling to work things out. Court is brutal. I was prepared to do what I could to avoid that," he said.

"It was an intense and upsetting time. The care of your kids is an emotional topic. No matter how things seem, mediation can help you resolve things quickly for the sake of your kids. After a few sessions we reached an agreement of 50/50 childcare and stuck to that. The kids are much happier since we sorted things out.”

Relationships Scotland chief executive Stuart Valentine said. “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.”

“Research shows that mediation is quicker, less costly and more effective than court action in helping divorcing and separating couples.

"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.”