Regular readers of this blog will know that the government is trying its best to cut down the cost to the taxpayer of family breakdown. Legal aid will be all but removed from family proceedings next April, and there will be no increase in funding for the already-stretched family courts to deal with an expected avalanche of people making and responding to applications without any legal guidance. But wait – the law-makers have found a solution! This week the Department for Work and Pensions launched its “sorting out separation” web app which is going to make everything ok.
(For those who don’t know what an app is, it’s a widget that people can use to pop a little bit of DWP wisdom into their websites. You can find it here if you want to give it a go yourself, or even to pop it onto your own site).
The app apparently cost the DWP £300,000 and was created with the intention of helping people to know where to turn to for advice when a relationship breaks down. According to a YouGov poll commissioned by the DWP, more than half of parents (52%) find it hard to access help and support they need when they separate. It also apparently showed that 39% of parents did not call on professional support when they separated from their partners, and 25% said this was because they could not find the right help or support, or felt embarrassed.
Sarcasm aside, at CFLP we do support everything that enables people going through the pain of family breakdown to access resources that can make a difference to them – after all, that’s why we make so much information available on our website and write this little blog each week. The app is built around an ethos we share, that information can help people feel more in control in situations that are painfully frightening and unfamiliar. Anything that helps people access support for themselves and their families, or learn a bit about legal processes and different options for getting to a solution, is fine by us.
The app actually delivers information really well. It contains lots of really helpful pointers in bite-size chunks, sensibly divided into broad topics: children and parenting, health, housing, legal, money and finance, relationships and conflict, and work and benefits. Each section contains an overview with major points that people might want to think about, and gives a list of other websites to travel to if there’s a need for further information. Throughout the site there’s a good focus on children, not just in the dedicated section, meaning that even if parents are looking at the legal or money parts of the site, they are encouraged to consider the wider picture and how decisions impact on the kids.
The videos are short and to the point, and although some of them are a little bizarrely scripted in our opinion, they generally manage to convey information clearly and sensitively.
Finally, there is the option to create a personal action plan. This is an excellent idea to help people prioritise which areas they need to start to address first, which can be so difficult in the early stages of separation when everyone finds it difficult to see the wood for the trees. There are a lot of questions to answer, and when we had a go we weren’t sure that we necessarily always got the information we would have expected from the site as a result; but there’s no question that it provides a good starting point from which to work. It’s an anchor in the storm, and one that we feel may well make a huge difference to people who simply don’t know where to begin.
We have a few quibbles with the site: on most of the pages there’s a button to press if you’re “living in fear” or concerned for someone’s safety, but it’s not on the home page. We’d like to see emergency protection have a higher profile on the site, particularly as people suffering from violence or abuse will still be able to access free or subsidised legal advice when the reforms come in next year and this should be made clear in the interests of encouraging them to take steps to protect themselves and their children. We would have liked to see mediation and collaborative law have a higher profile too – mediation, for example, can assist not just with the settlement of legal disputes, but with many other aspects of divorce and separation, particularly in reducing conflict and encouraging parental cooperation for the future.
Information is power. Empowering people during separation and divorce is essential. However, in the context of the government’s changes to family justice as a whole, particularly the removal of funds to enable the poorest people in our society to access legal advice when their relationships break down, this feels rather like a sticking plaster on an amputation. Many of the advice bodies to which the site is referring are also losing funding and scrabbling around for financial support. We at CFLP feel that a web app can only take you so far: it’s face to face support from an experienced and expert professional that makes the real difference, and that’s in increasingly short supply. What do you think?
*This blog is written for informational purposes as a free public resource. Nothing in this blog or elsewhere on this website should be construed as legal advice. Although we welcome discussion, please note that CFLP is unable to give legal advice in response to comments left under this article.