Online Dispute Resolution – the next big thing in family law?

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Relate, the UK's largest provider of relationship support, has today announced that it is trialling a revolutionary new online platform designed to facilitate settlement between separating couples. Its developers, have taken input from the national family law organisation Resolution and modelled the Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) platform on a similar platform used in the Netherlands for small litigation matters, hope that it can be used as a "one-stop shop" for reaching a financial settlement for couples going through a separation. However, can an online platform really replace the human touch in resolving family disputes?

As members of Resolution, Blake Morgan's family lawyers are keen advocates of solving disputes in the least confrontational way possible (this depending greatly on each couple's individual circumstances). The options available to separating parties are wide-ranging and varied, spanning from non-contentious methods, such as mediation, through to litigation. 

Mediation is a commonly-used non-contentious method, bringing families together to discuss their issues with the assistance of an impartial mediator, who can then provide their input in guiding discussions towards a positive conclusion. A mediator's perspective is, therefore, often invaluable in elucidating a dispute between disagreeing parties who might not otherwise be able to see the wood for the trees. Parties might alternatively wish to engage in these discussions through negotiations led by their solicitors, each using the benefit of their respective solicitor's experience and knowledge to drive discussions towards a settlement. At the other end of the spectrum, parties who are unable to meaningfully engage in negotiations may have no option but to ask the Court to decide, and will instruct their solicitor and Counsel to prepare their best case to put before the Court. The Judge will then make an Order on the basis of the documentary evidence and presentations made before him or her.

Whilst further details as to the mechanics of the ODR platform are awaited, current reports indicate that it will provide negotiating tools and suggestions to separating couples so that they can lead discussions independently, with the option to seek assistance from family lawyers and mediators if they run into difficulties during the process. It is suggested that these lawyers and mediators will be available to provide remote advice by email or webcam as a way of bringing in the impartial third-party perspective which is often so helpful in making alternative dispute resolution effective.

Should the trial of the ODR platform prove successful, the platform is likely to become a cheap option for parties which will go some way in clarifying and streamlining a process which can be complicated and stressful to navigate, particularly where heightened emotions are involved. Notwithstanding this, it may be for this very reason that the impersonal nature of an automated platform is unsuitable for family matters, and that the human touch brought to the table by an experienced family solicitor remains vital in ensuring that a holistic and well-rounded outcome is achieved for all involved.