First: a confession…
I used to be one of those lawyers who felt distinctly nervous at the thought of changes in legal services that could impact upon my livelihood. But then, as a person entering the law as a second career shackled with monstrous debt from my legal courses and young, hungry children, I was always likely to be of a nervous disposition. But as time has gone on I have learned to embrace change. In fact, I positively welcome it. I like to see the positives in change rather than the threat. There is no greater agent of change than technology. Technology can deliver services in ways we could not have imagined some 15 years ago. Legal services are not immune. And I am not referring to the now commonplace changes introduced by innovations such as:
- ‘Always on’ and synchronised services like Dropbox or Googledocs unleashing the full potential of mobile devices like the iPhone and iPad.
Lawyers are beginning to utilise these technologies to help their clients. That’s the way it should be. For too long, lawyers have thought of reasons why their established patterns of working should not change even though client pressures were building to demand greater flexibility in the delivery of legal services. After all, why should the provision of legal services not be client-led?
This blog is aimed at that section of the public making one of the painful transitions called separation, divorce or dissolution of their civil partnerships. I am communicating directly with people who may need to access advice on matters like divorce. I am precisely NOT writing this blog for the benefit of my professional colleagues specialising in family law. They are very welcome to read my posts and take issue if they like but they are not my intended audience. This is the reason I am not banging on about the profound changes to be wrought by the Legal Services Act: the public don’t give a toss and why should they?
So what are the interesting strands, now emerging, that are likely to shape the future of family law services delivery?
This simply means that the public may want to select from a menu of legal services: picking and choosing those bits they cannot do themselves with any confidence. But, being prepared to roll up their sleeves and have a go at the aspects that look less daunting and may owe more to procedure than legal interpretation. This has been going on for some time but the pace appears to have accelerated. People having to deal with divorce have always been able to deal with the proceedings themselves but the availability of online services has allowed for the elements of the proceedings that can be process-driven to be offered directly to the public. The divorce process (but not, in all cases, the financial aspects) can be broken down and delivered online. Mark Keenan’s Divorce-Online has been doing this for years. There have been other entrants into the online divorce services market but Divorce-Online, being the original, still appears to be the best.
Online forums attracted to discrete issues are creating their own ‘demand agendas’ that bypass traditional professional services or dictate the terms of engagement with them. If you have a look at Wikivorce you will see a strong element of self-help driven on the forum pages. The members posting on the user forums will often use the term STBX (soon-to-be-ex [partner]) when referring to the other spouse. The other members will provide sympathy, support and some direct suggestions for how to tackle a problem with a STBX. It is clear that there are some comments posted by forum users with legal experience, possibly solicitors or legal executives, but they are not allowed to ‘own’ the pages, or even, as far as I can tell, use the forum pages to profile their legal firms.
Another good example of community action is Suzy Miller’s Starting Over Show (SOS). An online environment that supports and encourages divorcing and separating couples to explore ‘better’ ways of resolving disputes with an emphasis on mediation and the collaborative process. An example of Suzy’s bottom-up approach is Divorce in a Box which provides vouchers to a range of services, both legal, and therapeutic.
Look at MyOffspring. This is a relatively new offering and I spoke about it on my companion blog, Larkinslaw,when I said:
“… the MyOffspring team want to offer separating parents an online environment that provides a suite of tools and resources that will allow them to communicate with each other and even their children using the now familiar tropes of social networking. There will be the ability to use a schedule manager, join forum debates, access advice from a range of experts on family matters (both legal and therapeutic), and even upload materials for sharing with your ex-partner that can be timestamped and even geo-tagged.
The emergence of online offerings like MyOffspring throws up some interesting questions.
- Will the ability to communicate with your ex-partner in a secure online environment in real-time improve the prospects for constructive dialogue and therefore improve the outcomes for children?
- Will the ability to upload materials to a secure server reduce the room for conflict between those parents where the common cry of the parent who is not the primary carer of the children is that they are kept in the dark despite enjoying parental responsibility for their children?
- Will the ability to geo-stamp certain entries, through a supporting App on a smartphone, do away once and for all with the destructive allegation and counter-allegation that one parent has failed to turn up at the agreed time and location to have or to allow contact with their child? I have seen the courts struggle with these cases where a decision has to be made as to who is telling the truth about specific incidents. The court’s decision, a finding of fact, can impact directly on the ultimate decision as to which parent should have care of the children or how much contact there should be for a so-called absent parent.
- Does the concept of the ‘absent parent’ lose definition and meaning in a virtual world where the channels of communication are in real-time and ‘always on’?
- Most intriguingly, will the English courts, like their North American counterparts, embrace the reality of such online tools and begin to incorporate into their orders, a direction that the parents before the court must subscribe to such an electronic service in the hope that communication will improve but that , if it does not, the un-cooperative and obstructive parent may be found out.
The potential for improving the frequency and I would hope, the quality, of the communications between parents in respect of their children is there. The STBX will be the person at the other end of the interactive tools in this vision of the future rather than the subject of anger or despair in the forum discussions. If I am right – that the tropes of social networking are becoming ubiquitous – then the particular patterns of engagement between consumers of such services, even hostile parents, could be constructively channelled for the benefit of their children.
Finally: a freebie
My day job is with Family Law Partners (FLP) The MyOffspring team have kindly offered my firm 200 free subscriptions for their premium service for 12 months. You do not have to be a client of FLP to use the subscription. It will be first come, first served. I will post the online code for the offer as I soon as I receive it.