Exploring DIY family justice in the digital ‘wild west’

A GW4 research community has begun to scope the impact of the Government’s efforts to delegalise family disputes about children and finances which arise on relationship breakdown. The project looked at how recent government withdrawal of funded legal advice is playing out in the digital age, leading to a confusing range of online information and evidence of ‘crowdsourcing’ of amateur advice on platforms such as Mumsnet.

Whereas lawyers have traditionally guided families through the issues which arise on divorce and separation and legal aid has been available for legal advice and representation, the government has removed public funding for legal support and is encouraging citizens to resolve matters directly or through family mediation, moving these disputes in England and Wales into a ‘delegalised space’. The government’s aim was to reduce antagonism between family members and to promote the use of family mediation. However, in many cases, this policy has led to a reliance on ‘DIY family justice’ and use of online help-seeking as well as a rise in the numbers representing themselves at court.

Gathering the largest-ever UK evidence base on the ‘delegalised’ space

Having received funding from GW4 to undertake scoping work around this issue, this interdisciplinary research community has now submitted an ESRC bid for £2.5 million to understand first online help-seeking behaviour in an era where there is so much information but so little to guidance on its quality, leading to it being dubbed the digital wild-west. It will then define best practice in and signposting of online provision and recommend how services could better meet the needs of vulnerable families. To do this, the group plan to collect the largest ever UK evidence base on the delegalised space and the experience of families within it.

The proposal has already attracted high profile support with letters of support from the Ministry of Justice, Children and Families Courts Advisory Support Service (CAFCASS), Family Justice Young People’s Board (FJYPB), Department for Work & Pensions (DWP), The Law Society, Resolution and the Family Mediation Council. Many of these partners became involved with the research community through a series of collaborative workshops in Bristol, funded by the GW4 Alliance, which brought together academic researchers with policymakers and support agencies.

Anne Barlow, Professor of Family Law and Policy & Associate Dean for Research, College of Social Sciences & International Studies at the University of Exeter explains: “Through GW4 support we were able to create a completely new vision of how to research the new phenomena of the ‘delegalised space’ and DIY family justice using innovative methods across disciplines and to take a truly interdisciplinary approach to a problem which was found to be of great relevance to policy makers, practitioners and academics in a variety of disciplines.”

Commercial partnership to improve understanding of justice in the digital age

Alongside such high profile governmental and public sector support, the researchers were pleased to have also attracted an influential commercial partner– an inherent benefit of the combined visibility and scale of a collaborative research project.

Anne says: “In particular, the digital nature of the delegalised space – which has replaced traditional legal advice with online legal information which lay people have to navigate – was of interest to our commercial partner, IBM, which we did not expect to be the case.  We feel we made a terrific step-change in terms of our overall vision relating to ‘justice and vulnerability’ and also developed understanding around the digital capacities and challenges in this field which can assist and hinder justice in a digital age.”

Supporting families, policymakers and advice agencies

It is hoped that the proposed project will improve the experiences of ex-partners during the separation process, and will enable them to access accurate and useful information on and offline. The group also envision that the project would find better ways to support children and young people embroiled in family disputes. Young people will be invited to take part in focus groups which will inform the project’s ultimate recommendations on which messages and advice would be suitable for the children experiencing parental divorce or separation.

Policymakers are also expected to recognise the findings of the proposed project. The Ministry of Justice is looking to improve the online support available to separating couples and has committed to considering the project’s findings when making policy in this area. As family breakdown is such a wide-reaching challenge, a variety of government departments is expected to benefit from the project’s conclusions, including the Department of Work and Pensions, the Department of Education, the Department of Health and the Home Office.

For advice agencies, the proposed project would enable them to improve their services at every step of the family separation journey. Support agencies such as Citizens Advice need to understand what happens to ex-partners after they leave their services. Following this, online organisations such as Wkivorce and OnePlusOne would be able to discover how their clients use their information, and whether they believe this is accurate. Finally, actors at the end of the process (GPs, job centres and schools) must understand how the delegalised space can affect their services, and direct families to the correct agencies for support.

GW4 funding and support enabled this research community to connect with influential partners, such as the Ministry of Justice and OnePlusOne, and work together on a major funding bid to continue their vital work. If their proposed project goes ahead, it could transform the support and advice available to separating families across the UK, and change the way policy is made in this important area.

Partners contacted

Ministry of Justice

Children and Families Courts Advisory Support Service (CAFCASS)

Family Justice Young People’s Board (FJYPB)

Relate

Department for Work & Pensions (DWP)

The Law Society

Resolution

Family Mediation Council

Bristol CAB

Personal Support Unit (Exeter and Bristol branches)

IBM

OnePlusOne

The Divorce Magazine

Mumsnet

Netmums

Families Need Fathers