The Dutch Rechtwijzer – a ground-breaking joint ODR venture by the Dutch Legal Aid Board, the Hague Institute for Innovation of Law, and software developer Modria – was scaled back in 2017. It was replaced by a domestically focused service, run by a new start up Justice42. Co-founder and chief operating officer is Laura Kistemaker who transferred from the original project. This is her account of subsequent developments which reveal that, obscured by the language barrier, nothing has been lost of the originality of the original project.
We have pulled back from the international scene and concentrated on The Netherlands. As a result, we are less visible internationally. That is not because we don’t want publicity. We just decided not to attend international conferences and to focus on developing our product for the Netherlands. We went operational in September 2017 with a fully rebuilt and improved platform named Uitelkaar.nl. A lot has happened since then. We learnt a number of lessons from the Rechtwijzer era. The biggest change is that the new system is far more of a hybrid system of online and offline. We now have a group of case managers who look after users as they go through the system. They offer assistance, comfort and support when needed. They are much more involved in the case than was originally planned with the Rechtwijzer.
Trust is key for people going through divorce. Most – maybe all – have not experienced something like it before in their lives. There is a lot of hesitancy; much asking ‘How does this work?’. The financial consequences are complicated. A lot of people are searching for answers. You can offer these as written texts but not everyone likes to learn that way. Some do. But a lot of people want to chat either online or on phone. Our case managers can operate on both. The original plan for the Rechtwijzer was very ambitious. That was needed to get started and claim our space. But, ultimately, the belief that the whole divorce process could be dealt with fully online was too much for people. Purely online will work for a specific – and growing – group but not all. Some will always need individual assistance in the traditional way. But, in the middle, we can help people still on speaking terms; willing to work together; and with a degree of self efficacy skills with a combination of human and automised support. They can understand what they need to do and take their own steps.
We are now more modest in our ambitions as to who we can serve but we have been extending the services that we provide with different functions and add ons. For example, we added a parenting plan for people who are not married – something that is compulsory in The Netherlands. We also added mediation as a kind of top up optional module in addition to the services of the case manager and the final involvement of the lawyer who approves the settlement. The mediator has on and offline conversations with couple – though does not take control of the full divorce process as is more usual in a traditional mediation. After mediation, people go back to the platform. We also added child and maintenance calculations – and pension advice.
The system matches the contribution from each party. What is your first idea for where kids will live? It invites suggestions from each party. If you are coparenting, it then sets out all things you have to decide. It is a structured way of solving nitty gritty things. We try to bring out the positives. We ask questions like what would you not want to lose: what was your partner good at. We try to get parents to consider interests of children. So, it very much follows the process developed for the Rechtwijzer.
We have seen a sustained rise in the number of who register. We are up to 120 cases this month (January). We hope to grow more. We started out with two social impact funders who are still with us after almost three years. They have given us finance but also knowledge expertise and guidance. We are not yet financially self sufficient but we hope to break even sometime in the coming year. We are no longer a government project as we were originally. So, we really need to build up trust with our users. All the marketing experts say that divorce is one of the hardest areas to impact and it is a one off not a recurring. It is not easy. The current market is full of individual lawyers and mediators. We survive on people choosing to use us.
We have a special arrangement with the Legal Aid Board for those eligible for legal aid. As from October last year, we are the cheapest option for them. The lowest contribution of those eligible for legal aid is only 36 euros. If you want a divorce and parenting plan, the full unsubsidised price is 450 euros. This compares with the average divorce in The Netherlands which costs between 3-4000 euros. We are nearing 800th finished case. We are measuring customer satisfaction at every step. It is actually higher than under Rechtwijzer. We get consistently 8 out of 10 for the whole process.
We have expanded to three case managers. The lawyer who finally approves the settlement gets assigned from platform. He or she logs into the system and reviews the 16 points generally in the agreement. The lawyer questions whether there is really agreement; whether it is satisfactory; and whether it has been fairly achieved. The case then goes back to the parties and then back to lawyer. On average, there are three rounds like that. At the end, there is a personal attendance with the lawyer. The lawyer gets a fixed fee for that – lower than for legal aid. But there are lawyers who have decided not to do legal aid in their regular practice because of the low pay but will act for us because they see our remuneration as fair for the work they do.
Professional opposition to us has calmed down from the Rechtwijzer era. There is occasionally discussion with the various professional interest groups. But we are having a more constructive dialogue. We find lawyers come to us – we don’t have to go find them. Our lawyers have gained so much experience with this innovative form of online legal assistance that they now consider themselves as specialists in this new field. They are looking at how they could professionalise that. We currently have 25 on our books.
We still dream of going international at some point. We know that we would need to have good partners abroad. We would not embark on that on our own. We are now a business to consumer service. We wouldn’t opt for that same model elsewhere by ourselves. But we put that as a second priority. Our first is to see how we can expand with additional tools for divorce and potentially other areas of law in The Netherlands.