Survey will reveal how well apps support human solutions to co-parenting issues
by Rebecca Bromwich as appeared in The Lawyer’s Daily on, September 11, 2018
Working as director of the graduate diploma in conflict resolution program at Carleton University’s Department of Law and Legal Studies, I am grateful to have received a $45,000 research grant from the Law Foundation of Ontario’s Access to Justice Fund to take a closer look at access to justice and co-parenting issues. I have a mixed team of law and legal studies students who are finding out what people need and what’s going wrong.
In addition to conducting case law research, over the next year, I will be circulating surveys and asking questions of those of you who are experts in the field of family law to learn more about your experiences. I look forward to hearing from you.
As lawyers, we are all familiar with what retired Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, among other jurists, has drawn attention to as a “crisis” situation where Canadians cannot get effective access to justice. There is certainly a crisis in access to justice in the family law area.
Despite the attention that has been drawn to the issue of access to justice, in family law matters, which make up about one-third of the cases before the courts across Canada, most parties have no counsel. As statistics have revealed, as those of us who practise in the area have experienced, and as Nicholas Bala and other family law scholars have discovered, the majority of parties coming before family courts are self-represented litigants, and the percentage of self-reps in family courts keeps increasing.
Online technology is growing in its capacities and ubiquity. This may — or may not — be an optimal moment to use technology to support human solutions that shift custody and access disputes out of the formal court milieu. We are seeing a confluence of events where online technology, including artificial intelligence (AI), is making it possible for tech solutions to be proffered to a growing variety of legal problems.
We are seeing burgeoning use of online dispute resolution for small claims matters, and even AI being used in the U.K. to resolve parking tickets. At the same time that we are witnessing increasing numbers of people in family law who simply can’t afford lawyers, so are now unrepresented in court.
Parties are voluntarily using legal tech apps in relation to family law matters, and, sometimes the courts are turning to requiring parties to use apps to help them manage ongoing custody issues.
These apps can help parents communicate by facilitating their sharing of scheduling requests, as well as photographs, medical records, school records and other material. Over the past decade, judges dealing with matters in family law issues across Canada have started to order parties to use privately operated, for-profit U.S.-based apps to manage their conflicts concerning custody and access issues.
These apps raise legal and sociolegal questions about how social interactions between family members are being affected by the use of tech; how well people using the tech understand their family law rights and responsibilities; and whether and how those technologies can be manipulated in problematic ways.
We plan to collaborate with lawyer Jennifer Reynolds of the Ottawa family law firm Fresh Legal as well as the Family Dispute Resolution Institute of Ontario and Legal Aid Ontario in disseminating the survey for this research. Our findings will be made publicly available next year.
At the same time, we are working with software engineering students who are looking at the parameters of possible not-for-profit, Ontario-based technical solutions. This law and society research is linked to a collaboration with Carleton’s software engineers to develop a non-profit application that could benefit Ontarians.
I am excited that the Law Foundation of Ontario has provided me with this opportunity to investigate what apps are being used, to facilitate communication between co-parents, in what numbers, and how users are experiencing this practice. Ultimately, I want to learn how these apps are affecting levels of conflict between co-parents or impacting the best interests of children.
The results of my study will be made available next summer.
To participate in the survey, click here.
Rebecca Bromwich is director of the graduate diploma in conflict resolution program at Carleton University’s Department of Law and Legal Studies in Ottawa. You can e-mail her at RebeccaBromwich@cunet.carleton.ca