Much internet assistance on family law draws a distinction between advice on general matters and on domestic violence. In the latter case, the user is often ‘red flagged’ out of the provision of routine information and directed to sources of face-to-face help. This division – which has an obvious objective basis in the potential need of the user – is particularly accentuated in jurisdictions like England and Wales where legal aid remains available for domestic violence but not for other matrimonial matters. However, an interesting collaborative project, funded by Comic Relief (a UK-based funder which distributes money raised largely through a massive BBC funding operation), has been formed to explore the relationship of technology to abuse, both in enabling and combatting it.
The project presents its work through a website on which, earlier this month, it published its latest research findings. These are contained in an interesting report which is likely to have international relevance (for example, a report on what sounded like a similar project by the Florida Justice Technology Centre was made at the recent Legal Services Corporation TIG conference). The research also has a wider significance in terms of examining how the internet may be used to provide assistance to those seeking advice and information.
The project published a supplementary paper on the ‘design challenges’ of producing assistance in this area, which is a response to the findings:
First, providers have to work on the basis that users will have no more than a 15 minute window to gather advice or to take action such as leaving home.
Second, services must offer effective real-time support services,
Third, there must be safeguards for the ‘digital-footprint’ of a user who needs to hide such matters as internet history and easy escape mechanisms.
Fourth, there must be accessible legal and financial information.
Finally, the site must help users to understand that behaviour is abusive.
You can see a practical illustration of a response to these challenges in the national Women’s Aid website. This has a rapid escape button on the side of each page of the site. A tab on the front page deals with covering your tracks online. Women’s Aid was part of the wider circle of organisations involved in the project. Amending your search history to hide some searches remains pretty clunky.
The research examines how technology can be used as a tool of abuse. It suggests that around half of all abusers monitored online activity of those that they were abusing: ‘There was a sense that the perpetrator was always one step ahead. This resulted in a lasting fear of using technology, both by survivors and practitioners. They viewed technology as potentially dangerous … Women choose to or were often advised to remove all technology from their lives. This left them further socially isolated and with less control … ‘ Suggested answers included ways of disguising software as something else like a calculator; using provision like Snapchat that does not hold data; and developing cloud-based storing of information.
Above all, there was the need for rapid information in the ’15 minute window’’ and the nature of that need changed according to the stage of the abusive relationship (through ‘unaware, aware, leaving, recovering’). Providers should use appropriate language – avoiding such terms as ‘gas-lighting’ (which, to my shame, I had to look up). Information had to be useable at speed. As one workshop participant reported: ‘It took me 15 clicks to find information on the local refuge. If you have only five minutes alone, that’s at least 10 clicks too many’. The research suggested that more was needed on financial support. Women needed to know how they would survive financially if they left an abusive partner. They also had a range of questions on practical legal matters to counter a range of uncertainties that kept women in abusive situations. There were two telling comments from abused women – ‘You have good organisations but once you get into the law area .. it’s [an] old schoolboys’ game’ and ‘once you have children you can’t get away’. Both probably reflect widely held views which need to be countered.
Workers with abused people needed more knowledge of technology and how it could help. How could you upload evidence of abuse? How could you know what a refuge would be like? How do you recognise an abusive relationship? There was a major need for workers to recognise the need for training in technology. One reported,’ We talk about safeguarding all the time… but never in relation to technology’ and the report commented: ’The challenge … is that domestic violence services simply do to have the confidence or capacity to fully engage with technology.’ There was a need for co-ordination and a strategic approach from the sector as a whole in recognising outstanding needs.
The report represents a model approach to an overview of the issues relating to technology and domestic abuse. But, it is also a bit more than that. It is, more generally, a demonstration of the value of a strategic overview. Albeit in a different way, it shares elements of th approach of the Singapore Academy of Law in the immediately previous post. It is seeking to look at provision with a sector-wide view for the purpose of asserting some strategic leadership. Comic Relief is following up the report with a call for funds on which it anticipates spending £300,000 ($370,000).
Outside of the field of domestic abuse, there would be two useful ways in which the methodology of this research might be followed up. First, it would be interesting to review provision internationally. Second, it would be very helpful for a funder or a consortium of funders to review another sector in a similarly holistic way – for example, provision in housing. That might provide the strategic leadership which the field so clearly needs and for which people all round the world are reaching. In the meantime, this is a report worth reading.