We live in an era where the way in which we live would be unrecognisable 20 years ago. Technology is intended to be there to make processes more efficient and to make your life easier. It follows that it should make the separation process easier too. For every action there is an equal reaction though, and technology can be more trouble than it is worth.
Set out below are some examples of how innovations in family law can hopefully help navigate separation and keeping up with their children’s lives.
I’ve just separated, what happens next?
Get advice and learn about your options. The internet is a helpful tool, especially if you know what you are looking for. It is no substitute for understanding what your options are for your particular circumstances and taking legal advice too.
Finding a solicitor, mediators, therapist or barrister to speak to has never been easier. You do not have to just Google your local family solicitors, and more detailed information is available online through:
- their professional bodies;
- organisations like Resolution whose members are committed to taking an amicable approach;
- legal directories such as Chambers & Partners and the Legal 500.
Some of the old ways are the best though, and it is always worth considering a personal recommendation.
Life is as busy as ever. With the damage of Covid there have been some silver linings. One of those is improving remote working and online meetings. Legal advice is more accessible than ever and meetings with solicitors or mediation can take place by video using platforms such as Teams, Facetime, Zoom etc.
Do your homework. Make sure that you don’t just know your options, but that you understand them too. It can be helpful to read and learn about your options alongside this, provided it is from a professional and reputable source. There are a number of good free, or cheap, resources. Resolution’s website has guides. There are various other helpful videos, podcasts, interactive websites and online guides (such as Law for Life) which help talk you through the process.
There are other online resources which can help you and your children deal with the emotional strain of separation. Websites like the Parent Connection help parents with the separation process. Websites such as Voices in the Middle can help children share their experiences with other children from separated families. The Cafcass website also has good resources on parenting, including a template parenting plan which you can work on with or without the help of solicitors.
How are we going to work this out?
Over the last thirty or so years there has been a sea change in how family law issues are resolved. There are a range of dispute resolutions available which can be adapted to create the best environment to help you hopefully agree upon a solution amicably, instead of having to rely upon a judge to make a decision.
Nearly all of those happen by video as well as in person, including roundtable meetings, mediations, Court hearings or arbitrations.
It can often be over facing collating and sharing background information or documentation with a third party, be that your former partner, a solicitor or mediator. You can collaborate with a third party, such as your solicitor or your partner, when preparing documents like a parenting plan using Office 365. That allows you both to amend documents in real time and see the changes being made without having to spend hours in meetings or on the phone and ensures you are not rushed in considering what to include. Tools such as Quantum Collaborate allow your solicitor to work with you online to complete forms or documents for your case. You can share large documents using Dropbox instead of having to print of reems of papers. Being able to work on this yourself has the added benefit of saving costs.
It is not just divorce laws that have changed with the introduction of ‘no-fault divorce’. How the Court deals with cases has also evolved. There is now an online portal which allows you to file an application for divorce online (either on your own or jointly). The simplified divorce process makes this more accessible to do yourself (although I would always recommend taking advice) and it also makes it quicker. If you are dealing with financial matters, then consent order applications are also dealt with online by the Court. The move to using an online platform has meant that, by and large, applications and paperwork are being processed more swiftly by the Courts.
How are the children going to cope?
In the 2011 census, one third of children in England and Wales came from families with separated parents. There is more pastoral support in school now, and support through child consultants or family therapists is far more integrated into the way lawyers work too. They can work with the parents to aid communication and with the children.
All children cope with separating parents in different ways. There are however many other children who may have experienced similar emotions which may resonate with your children and help them cope. There are a variety of videos online which children may want to watch in their own time or with you. They can become a helpful talking point to help them with separation. A good starting point to find these are websites like Gingerbread, Voices in the Middle or Young Minds. A greater awareness of the impact of separation on mental health and wellbeing has led to a range of resources to support adults and children struggling with the separation process.
The child’s voice is now far more audible in the decision-making process. It is now expected for children over the age of 10 to be given the opportunity to have an input into the mediation process if the parents agree and the child wishes to do so. This is known as Child Inclusive Mediation.
Depending on what arrangements the parents make, they could be going a long time without seeing the children. Video calling or sending a video or voice message is commonplace and is easily accessible on mobile devices using programs like Facetime or WhatsApp. Using technology and messaging well and on a child’s level can help keep them engaged in communicating with both parents all the time.
It was hard enough to parent and keep track of arrangements when we were in one house, how do we manage it now we are in separate homes?
Many parents find it extremely difficult to communicate with each other, plan and make joint decisions once they are no longer living under the same roof. More often than not, both parents’ motivation is what is in their children’s best interests – it just happens that they disagree on what those best interests are. A disagreement over what seems like a relatively banal issue, can be the catalyst for a bigger fallout. It is therefore extremely important to find a way that works for both of you as parents to communicate. Do always bear in mind, that professionals such as Family Consultants can work with both parents and their communication together.
Whilst telephone, email, text message or WhatsApp may work for many parents, others may benefit from a more bespoke tool to help them communicate. There has been an emergence of on-line co-parenting tools in recent years that are specifically designed to provide solutions for separated (or just very busy) families. Some of the options available include Our Family Wizard, Cozi, 2houses and Talking Parents.
It is really important that both parents test the different co-parenting tools to see what works for them as a family. Different products have different styles and focuses. Some are more well designed and user friendly, others are more pragmatic and suited to diarising events and contact schedules, and there are those that have Court proceedings and keeping logs of conversations as a key feature.
Most of these tools can be accessed through apps, as well as through a website, and are synced electronically between both parents. Most of the tools have some form of subscription charge. Some of the features available include:
- shared calendars;
- journals, including the capacity to check in via GPS;
- expense logs;
- data bank to store important information regarding a child’s education, health etc;
- message facilities, which log when messages are sent, when they are read, and can be downloaded. Some tools even have programs to identify and prevent confrontational language;
- live ‘to-do’ lists for daily tasks;
- facility to store and share pictures of the children with each parent;
- scheduler to work out options for sharing time between parents, and to help swap or change dates with the other parent.
Resources for co-parenting are not just on-line though. There are resources such as The Handover Book available. This is a book to put in key information regarding children, share information to help an easy transition between households and to even allow the children to get involved by sharing pictures and experiences from contact. This helps the tool remain respectful and child focused.
Many children’s diaries are more jam-packed than their parents’. Keeping diaries in sync used to be a very difficult process, with misunderstandings causing friction between parents. As well as the co-parenting tools referred to above, you can use calendars such as iCal which have share functions so that both parents can put plans into joint calendars to be accepted by the other parent.
There is no right or wrong answer to how to manage a child’s expenses post separation, especially if parents are sharing the cost of a school trip or extra-curricular activities. Apps such as Splitwise can help keep track of expenses and how these need to be shared.
Melanie Bataillard-Samuel & Tom Browning both contributed to ‘Separating With Children 101’, 3rd edition, (Bath Publishing, 2023).