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Holland opens online legal aid divorce scheme to fee-paying clients

Dutch legal aid board's dispute resolution extended, as Legal Services Board examines online divorce for the UK

28 March 2014

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Dutch legal aid board's dispute resolution extended, as Legal Services Board examines online divorce for the UK

Online legal aid divorce scheme to be extended to fee-paying clientsAn online family dispute resolution scheme developed for the Dutch legal aid board is set to become available to fee-paying clients, offering new access to justice routes with minimal lawyer involvement at an affordable cost.

Launched in 2007, Rechwijzer provides an online mediation service for a range of disputes including neighbour disputes, landlord and tenant, and now divorce and separation.

It was developed after the Dutch government closed down its law centres between 2003 and 2006 and replaced them with a network of 'law counters', all of which are now plugged into the Rechtwijzer online platform.

The service has been designed by The Hague Institute for the Internationalisation of Law (HiiL) and is powered by online dispute resolution specialists Modria - a business set up by former eBay and PayPal online dispute resolution executives.

PAY-AS-YOU-GO EXTENSION

Last week, HiiL's justice technology architect Jin Ho Verdonschot told Solicitors Journal that the scheme would be extended to privately paying clients in July on a pay-as-you-go basis.

Verdonschot also said HiiL were looking into incorporating a referral tool allowing users unable to resolve their dispute online or with mediators to instruct lawyers who meet the organisation's standards.

Such initiatives have been specifically flagged by experts such as former Justice director Roger Smith as a suitable lower-cost alternative to face-to-face advice, and Richard Susskind, who castigated the Civil Justice Council for failing to consider the potential of online dispute resolution schemes.

The Consumer Panel has also urged stakeholders to look into them.

"The Rechtwijzer model is an exciting new development in the online delivery of legal services," panel chair Elisabeth Davies told Solicitors Journal. "Online tools can be quick and easy to use, and often cost less than going to a lawyer."

Family lawyers, perhaps at risk if these models take off, are becoming more supportive too.

Julia Thackray, former head of family at Penningtons and now course director at CLT, said the concept was an interesting tool because it went beyond simply providing information to separating couples. "It attempts to encourage them to use a DR approach and to analyse what information and services they need to reach their own settlement," she said. "It is certainly more sophisticated than many other online separation tools and with the option for a mediator or an arbitrator to be involved at certain stages it brings the process to life to a greater degree."

NOT ALWAYS ENOUGH

But the system is not without downsides. "Whether the information and direction will be enough to enable couples to resolve disputes without more guidance, on-going support and facilitation of the communications between them remains to be seen," Thackray added.

While Davies warned about risks. "Online may not be suitable for all customers, some may wish to have greater support in handling their legal problem, others may have complex circumstances," she said.

"It's crucial regulators strike the right balance between encouraging innovative new approaches and protecting consumers from risks. We need hard evidence about the consumer experience of using online services," she added, saying the panel was carrying out research with the Legal Services Board on people who have used an online tool to get divorced.

"We're still at an early stage but the findings should tell us more about whether people felt confident about using an online tool, if they got the result they wanted, and if they saw any risks in going online. And at the same time we'll be watching the Dutch example with interest," she said.

Rechtwijzer users go through an online triage process to determine whether they are eligible to use the service via legal aid. They then proceed through to a number of stages, each encouraging discussion and positive outcomes.

From this summer, fee-paying members of the public will be routed through the same process but via a paywall.

Mediators and adjudicators under contract with the legal aid board are available along the way, and the final divorce agreement is reviewed for fairness by a lawyer before being ratified by the court.

The Dutch government is even looking into removing the courts from the process altogether and allowing settlements to be ratified by local registrars.

The scheme includes an aftercare plan, which requires parties to review their arrangements and gives them the chance to make changes - assuming all concerned agree - if circumstances have changed.

Categorised in:

Legal Aid Divorce