Monday, 9 December 2013

flApp v.2 - Family Law Support for 2014

In January 2014 we launch our new Family Law App... flApp v.2

2006 saw our first venture into family law information for separating parents, and The Custody Minefield book reached no.2 on Amazon's Divorce Chart. A reviewer in the Magistrates Magazine said it would 'save parents a fortune in legal fees'. The Divisional Chair of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy described it as a 'gem of information'.

The law isn't static, and print media soon becomes out-of-date. With legal aid being abolished and charity funding being cut, litigants the need for detailed support information has become even greater. I often am asked 'can you recommend a good family law book?' Not if it was written more than a year ago. The Low Commission (tasked with investigating support tools to plug the hole left by legal aid cuts) calls for action by 'the next Government'. Parents and their children need help now! Not after the next election.

In 2012, we launched our first web based application. This grew into a behemoth of information, as more and more content was added covering an ever wider array of situations and circumstances. We feared this was becoming overwhelming for the user.

When building this new version, we faced three dilemmas.

1. We wanted more content, not less. Something easily accessible, but not dumbed down. The volume of content needed thoughtful structuring,  in a more user friendly format.

2. We felt the volume of information in our first app was too overwhelming for some litigants, and especially when they are hindered by stress... but that depth of information is necessary to ensure the litigant can be properly armed, to achieve an 'equality in arms' (or as close as we could get it).

3. We were aware that a number of charities have support staff who use our guides, as do some McKenzie Friends. Specific guides would need to be quickly accessed while an adviser is on the phone, or with a parent or grandparent, face-to-face. Different users would need to access information in different ways.

In short, our goal was to provide more information, in a more accessible format, which was not overwhelming for the user, and would be of benefit to both the novice litigant and experienced adviser on family law.

This has been no easy feat. The new app answers many hundreds of questions and we estimate has 1,000,000 words of content (we stopped counting after 850,000).

Accessibility - Design
Accessibility is critical for any application. The format will need to work across all popular phones, tablet, e-reader, and desktop platforms. The design needs to cater for touch screen or keyboard usage. It does!

Accessibility - Structure
Rather than a long list of guides, we've opted for content specific, menu driven access, which breaks information into 'digestible' chunks, and where the user is lead from guide to guide.

The litigant-in-person (new to family law) chooses the first button 'Resolving Disputes', whereupon they're taken to a stage by stage, guide to the legal process.

Step 1: Pre-Litigation (guides on mediation, handling stress, helping children cope etc).
Step 2: Applying to Court (everything from orders explained, to the application process, forms etc)
Step 3: The first hearing (the FHDRA explained, position statements, the role of CAFCASS, confidentiality, courts and judges, etc)
Step 4: Directions and interim hearings (bundles, statements, collating evidence, investigations etc)
Step 5: Contested/Final hearings (preparation, bundles, scott schedules, skeleton arguments, submissions etc).

Simple guides on most other sites simply fail to cover more complex situations, and don't provide information which the litigant needs. What does a 'statement' look like? How should it be structured? What goes into a skeleton argument? What on earth is a Scott Schedule or the Witness Template? Who can I ask for advice (a question some court clerks appear confused on, when telling litigants they can't speak to lay advisers without the court's consent... you can!)?

So we go into detail... 

Taking Leave to Remove as an example (where one parent seeks to take a child to live abroad and the other parent opposes the move), our guides provide information as to what the court considers important, steps you may take, domestic as well as international legislation, and case law.

If your children are missing, you come home and the house is empty, if your children are at risk of removal abroad, suffering abuse or neglect, are being alienated from you or it's disputed whether you're their parent... you'll find practical information to assist you, referenced to the latest court judgments, and all commonly asked questions are answered.

Accessibility - Choices
If you know what you want, and would sooner not search through menus, we're introducing Oscar. Using page specific meta-tags, Oscar, our search agent, hunts for specific content.

Oscar searches through guides, menus and case law. Regarding case law searches, you can search using the area of law (e.g. contact disputes, parental alienation, leave to remove, internal relocation, shared residence etc...). If you remember the year and the judge who heard the case, Oscar can bring up cases heard by a specific judge or in a given year. If you know the neutral citation number, that's fine too (but how many of us do!). In short, Oscar is your dedicated family law librarian and can be accessed as a 'pop up' on any page with the press of a button.

For the new litigant, we've added a legal dictionary, which again can be accessed from any page, and being a 'pop up' screen, you don't have to leave the page you're on to decipher legal language (and then lose your place)!

For telephone support staff who need instant access to information, we've added a full content list, which again can be pulled up as a popup, and content accessed in this way opens up as a new window (allowing multiple windows to be open at once). 

Version 2, launching in January 2014, will have case law in both html (on screen) and a downloadable alternative (in a pdf format) should litigants want to provide the court with a skeleton argument supported by a reading list and hard copy case law. Where cited in guides as an indication of matters the court considers in specific circumstances, hyperlinks take the user straight to the judgment.

Version 3 will launch in April 2014, in anticipation of changes to the family courts. The modular design structure allows us to update content... fast ... and we'll have some new surprises for you!