Relate, once the National Marriage Guidance Council, has suspended an online family dispute resolution (OFDR) project modelled on the Rechtwijzer. The big question is whether the reasons relate to the concept or its execution. It is likely to be the latter. The halting of further progress suggests – as does the demise of the Rechtwijzer itself – that family dispute resolution just cannot be done properly on the cheap, too quickly or without considerable thought. In England and Wales, no quick fix by a third party is likely to let the Ministry of Justice off the hook. It has taken the savings to legal aid by cutting lawyers in family cases: it needs to support other ways of meeting a continuing need for help.
The Relate prototype was designed by the Rechtwijzer team at the Hague Institute for Innovation of Law (HiiL) and Modria (now part of Tyler Technologies). They were also behind MyLawBC developed by the Legal Services Society of BC. The Canadian project continues (more of which in a later blog) but is rather less ambitious. Relate wanted to offer a technology-facilitated negotiation process involving the parties on all issues at stake in a family breakup – together with access to personalised counselling, mediation and legal support if required. Built into the system was a final mandatory review of any negotiated settlement. Consultation with prospective users and experts suggested considerable basic support. The system was trialled and the feedback from users was generally good. Successfully implemented, it would have transformed the family justice system.
Relate had access to innovation money from Google’s Impact Challenge and Comic Relief’s Tech for Good programme.. More was forthcoming for impact assessment from the Legal Education Foundation. Nevertheless, it pulled back from taking the project further – at least at the present time. The issue was essentially the degree of resources and marketing that full implementation would require. As an internal discussion document put it, ‘Design matters, and the bar is high. For a first build, the OFDR v1.0 performed well but many elements needed work’. The system encountered the same problem as the Rechtiwijzer itself: it ‘was not reaching levels at which you would expect word or mouth recommendation to take off. This would be vital for scaling.’
There were suggestions from the trial of rather predictable improvements – a better mobile interface; more assistance with negotiation; more screening against insulting or abusive exchanges, for example. It became ‘clear that an element of personal assistance, albeit delivered through an online channel, would be helpful in assisting users to keep moving through the process’. Relate put considerable efforts into training and change of working method but ‘we needed to make training more detailed and action focused, and have a small cadre of practitioners delivering services rather than a larger practitioner base that only “dip in” now again’. Furthermore, it seems that English common law and statute may be considerably more complicated than Dutch civil law in family cases. An issue also arose over the role of lawyers.
In the end, however, the failure to develop the system arose from fear of too great a financial exposure. Relate’s goal was the creditable one of delivering a service for under £750 ($674) per family – to be met largely by user fees. This was the Rechtwijzer model. The inevitably front-ended costs of developing and marketing an appropriate system left Relate feeling too financially exposed – even with grant assistance. Implementation was perceived as ‘betting the farm’ or hazarding the whole organisation’s financial health. The risk was felt to be too big. One Relate commentator said that similar ventures take 5-7 years to establish and require about £500,000 of investment. Understandably, Relate jibed at that.
The result is that the organisation has gone for a ‘phased development approach’ – which in plainer English might be put as ‘kicking the idea into the long grass’. But, the project may, one day, arise again like Lazarus from the dead. It will be a pity if it does not. The key element is likely to be government. The fundamental problem for families facing breakup is that the legal aid which was once widely available, particularly to women, has been cut without any substitute. At some stage, some government is going to emerge with a concern for the ensuing problems that have arisen and will not simply go away. This probably needs Brexit to settle down and the fixation with austerity to end. So, it is won’t be soon – but it should happen sometime and, hopefully, Relate will remain poised to play a role.
Frankly, government subsidy of half a million – or even a bit more – would be a pretty cheap solution to the nagging result of one of the more egregious austerity cuts to the justice system and much cheaper than the cost of lawyers’ fees which have been removed. OFDR will not solve all users’ problems but the Relate experience suggests that, with appropriate individual assistance, such a system might provide a framework for some form of alternative for the formerly legally aided services which have been slashed. Oh,domestically, for a government that cared about acceptable levels of access to justice. But the important thing internationally is that Relate’s experience indicates the complexities and cost of developing an appropriate system in a common law country – but not its impossibility.