Written evidence submitted by Naomi Cousins, Dr Fae Garland, Dr Ruth Lamont, University of Manchester UK.
- The removal of funded legal aid for most private family matters under LASPO 2012 precludes certain parties to private family disputes from accessing conventional legal services. Parties without access to formal legal help negotiating their own arrangements are obtaining alternative legal services online.
- In response, a plethora of alternative advice services have emerged but the legal support accessible to parties across this myriad of online platforms varies in quality. There is no mechanism monitoring the reliability of these resources, resulting in lay individuals using their own judgment to determine the trustworthiness of the legal help provided online. The dissemination of unregulated legal support online promotes the potential for unrepresented parties to access questionable and potentially detrimental legal information.
- More emphasis must be placed upon determining the quality of the resources unrepresented parties are accessing in order to reduce the availability of inexpedient or unreliable materials.
Authors of the Evidence and Purpose of Submitting Evidence
- Naomi Cousins is a PhD student at the University of Manchester researching the provision of online legal support to parents involved in a dispute over child arrangements. Dr Fae Garland is Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Manchester and has extensive research experience in the field of divorce law and status of intersex and trans rights. Dr Ruth Lamont is Senior Lecturer in Child and Family Law at the University of Manchester and is an expert on child law and international family law. Evidence is submitted for the purpose of highlighting the impact of the withdrawal of legal aid from private family law disputes, in giving rise to informal online advice and support services aimed at parties unable to access the conventional the legal services sector.
Online Legal Advice Services
- Web-based resources have been identified as an inexpensive method of delivering legal information to parties resolving and settling legal affairs. The internet provides individuals seeking legal advice with immediate access to direct legal assistance and help. The role of online resources can legitimately function in ‘demystifying’ the law for a lay audience and could equip litigants with the requisite knowledge about their legal rights, substantive legal information, or basic information they can implement in their legal dispute. Web-based legal initiatives offer opportunities for parties to self-educate themselves about their legal rights and responsibilities and ultimately better inform themselves about the legal system.
- Accessibility to family justice via self-lawyering is ultimately predicated upon the effective dissemination of accessible, easily translatable advice which includes signposting to other authoritative online material. Whilst web-based legal advice is theoretically accessible, the quality of this legal pathway is questionable, especially relative to formalised routes of advice.
- There is a vast array of formal and informal online services that are available to parties in private family disputes. The various forms of online websites accessible to litigants, or potential litigants, can be delineated into the following categories: generalised providers of information, specialist providers, and peer-to-peer resources.
Generalised Providers of Information
- Generalised web-based legal advice platforms broadly function in signposting platform-users to relevant support services/agencies, including the Government Civil Legal Aid function, or equipping users with the requisite tools to resolve their own legal problems through generalised informational assistance such as Citizens Advice, AdviceNow.
- Generalised legal help and information could assist unrepresented parties, providing that the doctrinal content is both directly relevant to the individual’s legal situation and needs, and of a high quality. Ensuring that the legal information is both relevant and accurate is imperative in assisting parties to facilitate resolution of their family dispute.
- Basic legal information can be useful, however, private family matters produce complex legal issues which are liable to reductive explanations. This can be misinterpreted or lead to misunderstandings. The quality of legal resources online is not limited to doctrinal accuracy, but equally the website’s digital interface and interactivity of signposting to additional web browsers. Responsibility is placed upon individuals to correctly identify and select the most pertinent keywords in pursuit of accessing relevant web-based legal resources.
- Given the number and variety of online resources, individuals must discern which resources are relevant and reliable. The onus is firmly placed on the unrepresented parties to evaluate (without any framework of quality control) which platforms offer authoritative and salient advice. This is to be expected from Government resources and charitable services, but general advice from these sources may be difficult to relate to a specific dispute or personal situation. Consequently, individuals may not realise certain sources are relevant/irrelevant and this can detrimentally impact the next steps they take in their case.
Specialised Online Family Law Services
- Online legal help is also available from specialist services that offer reliable legal information to assist individuals in identifying their legal problem. This includes legal information supplied by legal practitioners or charities such as Child Law advice, Resolution, Children in the Middle, Lawforlife. These are specialist sites disseminating accurate and authoritative information of a trustworthy character. However, the individual applicant has to determine whether the information is up-to-date and accurate for themselves. There is the danger, for example, that some sites are no longer active and yet remain ‘live’ or have yet to update on important legal developments.
- Despite the usefulness of the internet as a resource for legal information, there are still barriers generated by this form of legal assistance. Without pre-existing legal advice, parties are still tasked with identifying this information online. Success will therefore depend on prior knowledge, search terms used and good fortune in terms of the website or advice service they access. Furthermore, they may face significant challenges in adequately evaluating the trustworthiness of this legal information.
- Terminology may be an additional barrier to parties accessing and engaging with legal information online. If there are any language hurdles experienced by individuals, there is a lack of professional oversight to clarify any complicated legal details. This information must be in a format that is conveyed in a manner understood by a broad spectrum of individuals.
Peer to Peer Forums and Provision of Legal Information
- Lastly, practical and emotional support for parties upon separation is increasingly provided by peer-to-peer forums in response to user needs. Providers of these services may be specialist, such as Wikivorce, Gingerbread Community Forum, Fathers 4 Justice, or operating on a general site such as Mumsnet, Wikivorce. Forum sites offer spheres for community building and are increasingly becoming important sources in fulfilling the demands for legal help in the lacuna of publicly funded legal assistance. These web-based sources provide partisan and real-time interactive provision of legal support and an emotional anchorage to bolster the preparatory work performed by vulnerable individuals.
- The format of discussion boards facilitates digital interaction in real time, and can provide a flexible and supportive community in sharing similar experience. Whilst community platforms are less formalised routes to seeking legal support, they represent a culmination of community-orientated advice shared between website users. These websites offer a platform for users to ask for information, or share advice based on a similar legal problem, in turn providing information to direct parties in the right direction for accessing useful resources.
- However, whilst these platforms might offer vital emotional support, they also offer the potential for promoting misleading legal help and information. The lack of regulatory measures or oversight of such websites raises concerns as to their credibility as alternative legal advice services for individuals. Issues pertaining to authenticity, reliability, accuracy and impartiality are not always apparent to the inexperienced. There is no benchmark for LiPs to identify what legal advice is helpful or unhelpful for particular case, or to indicate the comprehensiveness of the advice provided. The onus is placed upon the individual to be able to identify the legal quality of the resources.
- Individuals who are utilising online resources without additional professional legal support to pursue a private family matter are grounding the basis of their dispute in widely variable quality of legal support. The proliferation of these online resources, particular in terms of peer to peer support, increases the likelihood that individuals will access inappropriate legal support.
- The implication of poorly informed parties to family law disputes are numerous since individuals are less likely to make good judgments about the likely outcome or success of their case. This can lead to refusals to negotiate, and pursuit of court proceedings and participation in proceedings as a litigant in person without professional support or advice. It may also lead to challenging behaviours, such as ignoring or failing to comply with court orders. This has wider cost implications in the wider family justice system, compounding further to the pre-existing strains of case backlogs.
- In the absence of a centralised resource that provides specialised online advice, a system of oversight or regulated list of appropriate advice services and financial support for specialised online advice services would address some of these issues. Supporting the provision of reliable specialist online services that can be tailored to some degree to need provides an alternative to peer-to-peer networks that, whilst they may offer valuable emotional support, are more limited in terms of legal advice.
 Sue Scott, ‘Law Online: How do People Access and Use Legal Information on the Internet?’ (2000) 25(1) Alternative Law Journal 24.
 Ginevra Peruginelli, ‘Understanding Information-Seeking Behaviour and the Needs of Italian Legal Users in Accessing Legal Literature’ (2004) 13 Informatica e diritto 281.
 Maurits Barendrecht, ‘Legal Aid, Accessible Courts or Legal Information?’ Three Access to Justice Strategies Compared’ (2011) 11(1) Global Jurists 1
 Maurits Barendrecht, ‘Legal Aid, Accessible Courts or Legal Information?’ Three Access to Justice Strategies Compared’ (2011) 11(1) Global Jurists 1.