Divorcing couples will be referred to mediation to sort out most disputes before they are allowed to use the courts, the government is announcing.

Justice Minister Jonathan Djanogly said mediation was "a quicker, cheaper and more amicable alternative" to the over-worked family courts.

The measures for England and Wales, focused on child custody and financial disputes, come into force on 6 April.

Domestic violence and child protection cases will still go to court.

The minister told BBC Radio 4's Today programme statistics suggest that more than two-thirds of couples who take up mediation are "satisfied with the results".

"It gives people the opportunity to take their own futures in their own hands."

Under the change, anyone wanting to use the courts will have to undergo a compulsory mediation assessment session first. If mediation is not a workable option, for example one party refuses to take part in it, the case can proceed to court.

The ministry said 137,000 divorce cases were dealt with in 2009, up by 16%.

Helen Casey at cb4law is a highly regarded accredited mediator with many years of experience in mediating family law.