About the Family Law Week blog

The Family Law Week Blog is a companion site to Family Law Week. It complements the news, cases and articles published on Family Law Week with additional comment and coverage of the wider aspects of family law.

The Blog is edited by Jacqui Gilliatt, of 4 Brick Court and Lucy Reed, of St Johns Chambers.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

If only we had a magic wand...

I recently stumbled across a US website called 'Our Family Wizard' which really interested me. OFW provides a service for separated parents to manage their communication and arrangements relating to their children. We have all dealt with those contact cases where 'he said' this and 'she said' that, where there are repeated complaints that dad was late or didn't turn up or that mum cancelled at the last minute or that one parent has been inflexible about contact or downright abusive. And they are always denied by the other party. And with this type of case there are two certainties: 1 there will not be any verifiable evidence of what has really happened and 2 a lot of time and money will be wasted by lawyers dealing with the tedious to-ing and fro-ing of allegation and counter allegation played out either in correspondence or in the court waiting room. It goes thus: Lawyer A: 'My client says your client [insert inappropriate behaviour]'. Lawyer B 'I'll take instructions'. ... Lawyer B 'My client denies what your client alleges. He says your client [insert inappropriate behaviour]'. Lawyer A: 'I'll take instructions'. ... Lawyer A: 'No, that's denied. And my client says [insert allegation]'...Repeat until called into court by irritated judge.

Parents who sign up to OFW can use the website as their exclusive means of communication: they can email each other via the website without revealing their personal email address, utilise a contact diary system which enables them to make requests to swap or change arrangements, to notify each other of appointments or events in the child's own diary and even to request and pay for specific items needed by a child. There is space to record all the child's basic information so that it is readily available to both parents (doctor, school, emergency phone no etc). What I think is great is that with parental consent both parties' lawyers and even CAFCASS can be given access to the records of who has said what and when, who has behaved reasonably and who has not, even enabling them to print out reports of activity via the site, including when each parent has logged in.

OFW provided me with several sample orders made by courts in the US, which show that courts there have ordered parents to use this website as their sole means of communication.

For something like £65 per parent per year this is really good value for money when you think of the legal expenses that could potentially be saved. No need to argue about 'he said' 'she said', and a means of communication that is visible to both parties' lawyers is likely to have a calming effect on previously fraught relations. Of course it won't be suitable for all or even many cases, and for many parents even £65 per year is prohibitively expensive (shame legal aid wouldn't pay) but I can see this working really well for some families. Both parents would need to have basic computer literacy, regular access to the internet and be prepared to check in regularly - for US phone networks the site will send a text message to notify if a new message is received, but this is not currently available for UK phone networks.

There are drawbacks - whilst the services are available to parents wherever they are the product is clearly designed for a US market. A UK version would be good - irritating features such as the US mm/dd/yyyy format and financial tools which are not really in tune with the English arrangements for child support are two things which added to the lack of text alerts make this a less than perfect service.

I suspect that the majority of Judges and even lawyers would be initially skeptical about this sort of arrangement, but I do think that in the right case it may have an important part to play. Next time a case crosses my desk that requires something more than a contact book I will seriously consider suggesting the parties consider signing up.

1 comment:

John Bolch said...

This reminds me of the 'Footprint Evidence Tracker' by Durham Legal Services, that I mentioned on my blog back in September 2008, although looking at their site it seems that the service is now more to do with child maintenance than contact arrangements.