Essentially, e-Divorces are a digital means of undertaking divorce and family court proceedings. This is intended to create a shift from traditional proceedings that are dealt with in a court environment. Separating couples will then be enabled to resolve their divorce applications, financial and some parenting matters from the comfort of their own homes.
How does it work?
The new platform uses artificial intelligence to allow separating couples to engage in an informed online dispute resolution (“ODR”). It works in a similar manner to eBay’s buyer-seller dispute platform. The platform provides informative guidance, clear sign posts and streamlined graphic user interfaces to allow separating couples to use the platform with ease. The system will enable individuals to be in charge with settling their own family law matters with the guidance of the ODR. The ODR system will guide separating couples of the likely outcome, in respect to children and property settlement that the Court is likely to make if the matter proceeds to court. The ODR system will base its results on previous family law decisions and cases that are similar to its user’s circumstances.
Once an agreement is reached between the parties, the agreement will need to be submitted to the Family Court so the court can review and ratify the agreement. This will ultimately simplify the family law process which will provide couples more access to the legal system. ODR technology also works by reducing the effects of adversity in an already adversarial legal system and environment, thereby enabling the dispute resolution process to operate more efficiently.
Individuals are currently able to apply for the divorce hearing online via Commonwealth portal. The Commonwealth portal does guide individuals as to what documentation and information required. Further, the Family Court website provides brochures and links explaining the legal terminology and the process of divorce application. However, the individuals are still required to attend their Divorce Hearing if there are children under 18 years of age, unless they file a joint application. Further, the current system does not provide avenues for parties to resolve their financial matters and parenting matters online.
Providing separating couples with greater access to the legal system will almost invariably reduce legal costs for couples as there would be less work sought from a lawyer for divorce proceedings. ODR would also cover the gap between users that are not wealthy enough to afford a lawyer, but not poor enough to be eligible for Legal Aid. Separating couples would also benefit from the reduction of time spent in court and the emotional anguish of the separation experience.
Today, there are more than 48,000 divorces annually in Australia. The implementation of an ODR platform would also save thousands of court hours and free up a significant amount of courts resources. It is estimated that the new ODR system will resolve approximately 20% of all family law dispute. Courts would then be able to focus their time and resources more effectively on a greater number of more complicated cases, thereby significantly increasing their efficiency.
Who will fund the e-Divorce project?
The Federal Government has provided $340,000 to Legal Aid to develop an ODR system for family law matters. The platform will then be maintained by South Australia’s Legal Services Commission. The fees associated with ODR would then be used to maintain the platform.
e-Divorce platforms overseas
ODR technology has successfully been operating in Europe since 2016. The technology has been used mainly to settle disputes between consumers and vendors. The Report from the Commission to the European Parliament and Council stated that approximately 24,000 complaints were submitted to the platform in its first year of operation. The Report also stated that the ODR platform was generally well received with 71% of its users finding it useful. So far, the ODR achieves over 160,000 visits per month, approximately 2,000 complaints per month and 44% of the overall complaints solved with bilateral negotiation between traders and consumers.
The e-Divorce platform is said to be the first step in implementing a more sophisticated ODR system that would cover disputes in more areas of Family Law, such as mediation, parenting matters and financial matters. ODR platforms could then potentially be implemented in Australian consumer law disputes much like the EU, and possibly other areas. This would then magnify the benefits for users and the court system.
About the authors:
Christina Ati was admitted in the Supreme Court of WA on 1 August 2014 and has developed and refined her skills as a Family Lawyer. Christina has experience in both children’s issues and matrimonial/de facto property settlement matters. Steven is a Perth lawyer and director, and has over 20 years’ experience in legal practice and practices in commercial law, dispute resolution and estate planning.