Why we need to disrupt the family law sector

One way sign fallen off sign post
Originally published on 28th September 2018 at 11:20 AM

There’s a genuine problem with the way family law works in this country, and the impact it has on divorcing and separating couples and their families – so why has there been so little disruption?

Broken system

If you work with separating and divorcing families, you know the system is broken. It’s a unifying feature of the family law sector that so many stakeholders agree about just how broken it is. Strange then, there has been so little disruption or innovation in this sector.

Julia Greenberg suggests in her recent Wired article that the delivery mechanism of law – the law firm – is itself a large part of the problem. It’s a key point. If law firms are stifling innovation, and change is genuinely needed, then wow, there’s one hell of an opportunity for tech start-ups to change and disrupt this industry for the better.

Change is happening

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest this is starting to happen. Chatting to a recent tech entrant in the family law space recently they report hearing a subtly different message from bodies like the Solicitor’s Regulatory Authority and Legal Services Board, encouraging new entrants – like tech start-ups – into the marketplace in a bid to increase access to justice – presumably by driving down prices and the greater availability of plain English information and documentation about the law.

User experience is king

New entrants bring a UX focus. They worship at the altar of usability – enhancing user satisfaction by improving accessibility and pleasure provided in the interaction between the user and the product – a blend of the technical and psychological. In an industry that rules by fear of ‘the very unlikely’ and endless ‘what if’ scenario planning, it’s easy to see how attempts at digitizing information portals by government, charities and legal firms have ended up with next to no UX focus, overloaded with information and a nightmare to navigate.

Having worked with lots of couples going through divorce who have used a variety of methods from online websites to working face to face with legal or lay professionals, it’s interesting how none of them feel the process is designed with their needs in mind or designed to really help them. Most are shocked at just how rubbish we are at divorce and separation in this country. There is such appetite from consumers to have a simplified system for sorting our separation — one that links each part of the process together from deciding whether you should separate to filing your petition and at a reasonable cost. We may not be able to stop divorce from happening but we can certainly improve the way we do it.

Innovation won’t come from a website

The volume and complexity of information in a divorce or separation make an easily navigable website attractive. But looking at how people actually behave it’s clear that innovation is unlikely to come in the form of a website. People don’t spend large chunks of time sitting down at their PCs filling out a Form E for example. And whether it’s a Form E or a questionnaire that auto-fills a Form E as Munby described in his address to the Family Law Bar Association last month – it’s still an outdated concept. People do things on the go – five minutes here and there on a mobile phone. The chunking of small bites of information that a user can pick up and put down several times is key.

The mobile phone is also arguably the last private device – with tablets and laptops being commandeered by family members the phone is now the only place to have private conversations – something that could prove pivotal in the way users interact any new system. Disruption starts with tackling a problem in a different way – changing the rules of the game – and success in this game will only come when innovators start with the person rather than the law.

Agile innovation needs cultural change

If the government and judiciary are serious about online courts becoming a reality by 2017, and real end-to-end innovation in the family justice sector, they have to engage with the tech community and our agile methods more wholeheartedly. Agile is not putting things out to consultation.

Agile innovation means designing systems around user behaviour, getting things wrong, asking for feedback, learning from mistakes, giving up on things that your customers tell you they don’t value, even when you think they are wrong! It’s building quick and cheap so you can rip it up if it’s wrong –it’s a fundamental shift in seeing customers as equal and creating a dialogue about what would really help, rather than dismissing the user as naive or incapable of understanding the complexities of the law. Ultimately it requires radical cultural change by government and the judiciary for any hope of a digital near future.

Disruption will come from outside the legal industry

It seems inevitable that change in the divorce and separation industry will really take off with further savvy investment in disruptive tech-start-ups. The most cursory PEST analysis reveals that political, economic, social and technological factors are aligned, making the climate ripe for disruption. With this in mind and the very real problem of churning out distressed and broken people as the result of poor separation and divorce processes, it can only be a matter of time before there is an onslaught of disruption in the legal industry. Perhaps then we become a more civilized, advanced and humane society measuring our civilization not in its need for lawyers and advocates but in its caring approach to its citizens.

About the author

Hannah Hodgkinson is Head of Marketing at amicable. Hannah has over six years experience working for global NGOs and private consultancies and has a passion for marketing for companies with a social purpose

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