One innovative Canadian company has created an online financial disclosure technology to facilitate family law Online Dispute Resolution (ODR.) Research shows that this technology impacts outcomes by minimizing obstacles, addressing power imbalances, and speeding up processes.
By Darren Gingras, Executive Director, and Josh Morrison, Lawyer
Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) is an innovative branch of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) that utilizes technology to facilitate the resolution of disagreements between parties. Still new to family law, ODR has its roots in financial technologies and has been successfully moving to various areas of law and court processes for the past decade. Notable examples of family law ODR projects include the work of The National Center for State Courts and Modria in the US, MyLawBC in Canada, and Rechtwijzer in the Netherlands.
Family Law Online Dispute Resolution Growing Pains
Despite notable acceptance and expansion, family law ODR is still not without its own growth challenges. Too often the tech focus of ODR can be placed on the online portion of the process rather than the dispute resolution aspect. For example, tech-focused ODR might be based on the premise that an entire argument or issue can be neatly and efficiently wrapped up through a fast, inexpensive, and convenient online process. While this is a laudable goal, there are genuine problems with this approach.
When the desire to reach a specific outcome overrides the actual process of resolving the dispute, as is often the case in family law, the participants may only end up dealing with the symptoms of the problem while pushing the root cause further down the road. Credible ODR work must address the dispute itself in order to have any long-term efficacy.
Family Law ODR: Assisting Professionals and Their Clients
In collaboration with the National Research Council of Canada and various legal governance organizations, SIËSDE Dispute Resolution Technologies has been tasked to research family law processes, identify process “pain points,” and design/implement technologies that can assist professionals and their clients. Great progress has been made to date in the areas of solution generation, natural language processing (language balancing), parenting solutions, and family law triage processes.
An example of the “online” and “dispute resolution” pillars working successfully together is in the area of family law financial disclosure. Earlier this year, SIËSDE launched the Financial Disclosure Platform: an online program that allows family law professionals to simplify and automate the disclosure process for their clients.
This platform is a professional-centric, guided path through the financial disclosure process. It streamlines financial disclosure into simplified language, intuitive questionnaires, and bite-sized steps, which allows clients to keep on top of what is required of them without becoming overwhelmed. An automated, artificially intelligent, and client-friendly platform ensures that clients always have a helping hand and can measure progress as they go, allowing them to visualize the finish line.
Research findings conclude that the average length of the traditional disclosure process, per client, is 60-70 days or more. The long, slow, and tedious process of completing financial disclosures often creates confusion and an environment of hostility and distrust, which eventually manifests in unnecessary delays, more adversarial negotiations, and negative impacts on the family. Financial disclosure is a source of serious disputes during the separation process. Acknowledging this reality, and endeavoring to improve it, is at the forefront of the ODR mandate.
Launched in partnership with the Ontario Association for Family Mediation and the Ontario Centres for Excellence, the platform’s goal is not only to implement a convenient online tool but also to meaningfully minimize the level of dispute inherent in the early stages of a family law case. By standardizing the disclosure and review processes, as well as providing mechanisms to reduce power imbalances, this platform improves the speed of the process by up to 80% compared to traditional methods. This significantly reduces the pre-negotiation period of a separation when spouses often initiate or escalate serious conflicts that hinder the likelihood of a relatively quick and mutually satisfying resolution.
Online vs. Offline Financial Disclosure in Divorce Cases
Traditional methods of completing financial disclosures generally involve a family lawyer providing the client with a generic list of required financial documents, followed by the client completing and then either emailing or physically dropping them off at the lawyer’s office. SIËSDE’s research highlighted several common problems associated with the traditional disclosure process, including:
- Clients providing some of the documents while missing others.
- Exorbitant and unnecessary delays in gathering/sharing documents.
- Clients “forgetting” bank or investment accounts, assets, or debts.
- Managing client complaints about the necessity of the financial disclosure.
- Complexity and delays for professionals reviewing documents and disclosure information.
- Manually gathering and collating values for legal documents.
- Supporting income valuations.
- Managing client expectations regarding disclosure.
SIËSDE worked with various legal and professional organizations to implement appropriate protocols, such as best practices and professional standardization, understanding that without proper protocols, the financial disclosure process can adversely impact the nature of the negotiation process in four ways:
- First, and most importantly, a failure to complete a financial disclosure remains one of the main reasons that separation agreements are overturned by the court.
- Second, without full financial disclosure, each spouse is forced to make decisions with incomplete information – which may facilitate injustice, unfairness, or simply engender poor financial decisions.
- Third, the act of disclosure itself is one of the cornerstones of trust and good faith within the negotiation process.
- Finally, the length of time it takes a client to complete the financial disclosure process has been shown to be correlated with the level of conflict in the dispute. The longer the disclosure process drags on, the more frustrated the participants become and the more opportunity for hostility.
ODR Tools Offer Significant Advantages for Family Law Professionals
For family lawyers and other family law professionals, automating the financial disclosure process means corporate efficiencies, standardized processes, intrinsic protocols, administrative streamlining, reduced liability risks, and increased productivity for the whole team. The Financial Disclosure platform allows for integration with other legal software, generation of court documents, and the instantaneous secure sharing of documents between clients as well as between lawyers, mediators, and financial professionals. There is no need for couriers, no need to print disclosure files, and no need to experience security concerns regarding email. Financial Disclosure also implemented various negotiation tools that help the professional to visually explain complex financial matters to their clients.
As legal and financial markets are moving towards cloud-based technology tools supported by dependable partners, the security, reliability, and convenience of these products offer a more efficient process for the professional and a far better user experience for the client. More importantly, by creating a dedicated and standardized process for the firm to follow, family law professionals rest easier knowing that administrators, clerks, consultants, and any other staff involved in the file will follow the exact same procedures from one case to the next. The result is an increase in transparency and a reduction in liability.
Through Beta testing, the Financial Disclosure technology has successfully walked hundreds of clients through their professional’s disclosure process. Initial findings conclude that ODR technology can have a major impact on the actual dispute resolution outcomes by removing obstacles, addressing power imbalances, sharing and democratizing information, speeding up processes, and rendering digestible and understandable information.
Financial Disclosure is an example of a family law ODR tool that combines the online aspect with actual dispute resolution in order to improve aspects of the process for family law professionals and for their clients.
Darren Gingras is the Executive Director of SIËSDE Dispute Resolution Technologies. He is regularly called upon to speak and train professionals regarding dispute resolution technologies, in Canada and around the world. Josh Morrison (JD, LLM) is the Innovation Director of SIËSDE. He has managed family law programs within legal incubators and authored multiple reports on family law and access-to-justice. Specializing in process protocols specific to family law, SIËSDE Dispute Resolution Technologies is based at IBM Canada. www.FinancialDisclosure.ca
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