Amity Anderson, Legal Partner and Hillary McVeigh

First it was online divorce kits, and now the Government has rolled out E-divorce software. This has many family lawyers questioning their worth and asking…do we even need family lawyers anymore?

With the looming rise of artificial intelligence in the legal profession, the Federal Government has invested $341,000 in funding to National Legal Aid (NLA) to develop an online dispute resolution system, known as ‘e-divorce’. This software uses preprogramed algorithms to guide and ‘advise’ separating couples towards an agreed settlement. NLA chairman Graham Hill claims that the technology will generate likely court outcomes and provide suggested proposals both in parenting matters and financial. Further, it is claimed that these recommended outcomes are based on past similar cases. It promises to provide lower cost and user-friendly legal assistance to separating couples proceeding to stages of divorce.

However, like all technology or machinery, the proposed software has its limitations and constraints. The proposed e-divorce technology is designed to respond to simple legal questions and to provide generic solutions with reference to statute and case law. We always advocate that clients complete their own application for divorce where possible to avoid costly legal fees, although when it comes to the details surrounding your children and finances it is a different story. What the software fails to appreciate and deal with are the intricacies, sensitivities and complexities of each family and the impact that has on all aspects of a family law case.

There is no uniform approach to family law matters. No two marriages or families are the same and it is therefore naive and dangerous to think that two separations can be the same. A separation is often the most emotional and stressful time in a person’s life, involving their most important aspect – their family. Solely relying on preprogrammed AI software that lacks the human skills of empathy and negotiation involved in family law can have devastating and have costly effects.

Will E-divorce cause more harm than good?

Failure to obtain appropriate legal advice and making uninformed decisions based on an automated computer response can cost a client and their family dearly, whether it be financially or emotionally. It is often the case that clients will engage a lawyer at a later stage during separation where previous attempts at resolution have failed miserably. Either a party is unable to see their children despite an agreed parenting plan or one party has reneged on an agreed asset sale. Their situations may have turned out very differently had they sought initial tailored and expert legal advice from a family lawyer at the time of separation, rather than waiting until disaster arose.

Legal Robots vs Lawyers

Unlike computer software, an experienced family lawyer knows the right questions to ask, is able to identify key issues and provide detailed advice based on each client’s unique situation and needs. Prior to obtaining legal advice clients are often unaware of their legal rights or options for protection and resolution. Lawyers are able to discuss tactical and strategic considerations and create innovative ways to reach a settlement that suits each client’s situation. They are then able to assist in formalising agreements and orders to ensure that they are final and enforceable.

If necessary, they can represent a client in those matters which must be litigated in court.

Lawyers empower their clients by providing the information and knowledge to make informed and appropriate decisions towards their divorce, child custody and property settlement matters. Where one party holds the power either financially or emotionally, lawyers are able to level the playing field and ensure that their client’s rights are being enforced. They can discuss sensitive issues associated with family law, such as domestic violence or tough child custody disagreements. Lawyers provide a holistic approach collaborating with other practices such as counsellors or financial and estate planners.

There is a real risk that where clients rely on predetermined algorithmic technology to settle their family law matter, there will be a failure to address all current and future issues. As a result, the settlement agreement may fail and clients will need to engage lawyers to fix the problem. It is important to get it right the first time and obtain independent legal advice from the outset.

So how can Artificial Intelligence technology help the profession?

At Best Wilson Buckley Family Law, we feel it is important to adapt and embrace changing technology in order for our lawyers to best serve our clients. However, artificial intelligence should only be used in limited circumstances rather than handling the entire separation process, parenting arrangements and settlements.

We have implemented into our process software that generates an online questionnaire which asks clients to complete a questionnaire which provides clients with a roadmap as to what the likely issues relevant to their case. The client is then able to book a consultation with one of our lawyers in our Brisbane, Ipswich, Toowoomba or North Lakes offices or by phone or Skype, and prior to meeting with the client, we will already have a background understanding of the client’s issues, resulting in time and cost savings for the client.  We can then jump directly into discussing issues and possible solutions.

While AI can be used to enhance the legal profession, it should not replace the role of a family lawyer as a trusted advisor and confidante. We’ve all seen iRobot and Terminator and look how that turned out. Ask yourself…do you want Arnold Schwarzenegger representing your family?