Apps make it easier for couples to separate, but family law experts say communication is still key
'These are still human problems,' says Ontario lawyer who researched co-parenting technology
Originally published on Jan. 17, 2020.
Online resources for divorce and co-parenting aim to keep the separation process amicable and inexpensive for spouses. These digital tools are part of a broader move to open up divorce to less adversarial resolution methods like mediation, coaching and collaborative law.
A visit to an app store will yield a variety of resources for divorce and co-parenting — pocket legal guides, shareable calendars, and family counselling apps that promise to make the process of separation easier and conflict-free. The main goal of these tools is to simplify and expedite the process of separation while keeping the couple out of the courtroom.
"When you go to court, it's inherently confrontational," former Ontario attorney general Chris Bentley told Spark host Nora Young. A court divorce can also cost both partners a fortune in lawyer fees, which is a big hurdle in access to justice for those who can't afford to pay.
To help address these issues, Bentley, who is also a managing director at the Legal Innovation Zone, and his colleagues at Ryerson University created the Family Law Portal, a website that provides free resources and information to help Ontario residents understand their rights and responsibilities during divorce and separation.
"Putting all this information in the hands of people gives them more choice," Bentley said. "Our general view is that if you give people choices, they'll make the choice that is best for them most of the time."
Bentley says the portal acts as an early resolution system that can help people navigate the complexities of family law based on their unique situation. It also encourages families to take a long-term view, past the potential conflicts of separation and into the future of the relationship — especially when children are involved.
Rebecca Jaremko Bromwich, an Ontario lawyer who studied technological solutions for co-parenting, said that in addition to helping people make informed decisions, digital tools can be used to avoid or defuse conflict situations. For example, many divorce and co-parenting apps have a messaging feature that keeps the conversations between ex-spouses separate from other communications.
"What these apps largely do is they enable people to communicate in a discrete way," Bromwich explained. "They often will have an AI tool that allows for people's tones to be moderated, so it will provide them guidance, so a little light will go red if the text seems mean and it will be green if it seems nice."
According to Bromwich, other benefits of online technology for divorce and separation include better accessibility for people with disabilities — such as visual impairment — and translation services for people whose primary language isn't the one used in the divorce proceedings.
"There are lots of ways that diversity and disability can be accommodated through online platforms that haven't really been explored by apps in existence," she said. "A lot more could be done."
Co-parenting apps allow separated couples to share information essential to family management, such as the children's report cards or medical information.
The majority of the co-parenting and divorce apps currently on the market are created in the U.S., designed with the American legal system in mind. This can be a disadvantage for Canadian users, who, as revealed by Bromwich's research, rely on these technologies more heavily than American consumers.
There are also privacy concerns about the sensitive information from these apps being stored on U.S. servers. This is why Bromwich says she would like to see more of these initiatives in Canada.
"I think it would be useful for government — and certainly for Canadian private enterprise — to explore possibilities for developing these online technologies that are specifically tailored to our market, that make sense in our legal jurisdiction."
'These are still human problems'
While the apps can help improve access to justice for divorcing couples, Bromwich stresses that the apps are only as good as the data people choose to share — and at the end of the day, "these are still human problems."
"It's not a substitute for people dealing with some of the emotional, psychological and legal issues when they separate or divorce," she said.
Chris Bentley echoes that sentiment. "Most of family law isn't about the law; it's about something else. People need to be connected up to other services and not just legal services," he said.
"It's time to use technology, to trust people, and to expand our vision of how they get justice - and if we do that, more people are going to get justice."
Jenny Friedland, a Toronto lawyer who specializes in mediation, says that no technology can keep people from fighting if they want to be driven by conflict. That's why many people choose mediation and other collaborative approaches to split up amicably.
"It's remarkable how many people think they need to fight, or the rhetoric of divorce that surrounds all of us encourages people to fight," Friedland said.
"I want people to come to me and air out all their garbage if they need to, and use the process for the longer-term goal of getting along."
She admits that extremely high-conflict cases can benefit from online tools that provide a separate messaging system between ex-partners. However, in most situations, she says it all comes down to open communication.
"The healthiest way is to be a polite human who is courteous to the other parent and who is flexible, just like you probably were when you were married."