Recently retired Chief Justice Beverley MacLachlin, among other jurists, has drawn attention to a crisis situation where Canadians cannot get effective access to justice. As a growing number of people in separation, divorce, and child custody matters, are “self-reps”, (parties who represent themselves in courtrooms), and as online technology grows in its capacities and ubiquity, judges in Ontario’s Family Courts have started to Order parties to use privately operated, for-profit, US-based apps to manage their conflicts concerning custody and access issues. Rebecca Bromwich of Carleton’s Department of Law and Legal Studies has received a $45,000 research grant from the Law Foundation of Ontario’s Access to Justice Fund to take a closer look at the practice.
“These apps raise a set of legal questions because these are Canadian courts ordering people to use American apps,” explains Bromwich, who is the Director of the Graduate Diploma in Conflict Resolution program. “We don’t know how it’s going and whether it’s being tracked. It’s a bit of a black box in terms of what’s in them. And we don’t know how the use of these apps is affecting levels of conflict between co-parents, or impacting the best interests of children.”
Bromwich says the apps are being used because of a confluence of events: online technology, including AI, has made it possible for tech solutions to be proffered to a growing variety of legal problems, and, the majority of people in family law cases simply can’t afford lawyers, so are now unrepresented in Court. Parties are voluntarily using these apps, and, sometimes the Courts are turning to requiring parties to use apps to help them manage ongoing custody issues.
This law and society research is linked to a collaboration with Carleton’s software engineers to develop a nonprofit application that could benefit Ontarians.
“We have a mixed team of Law and Legal studies students who are finding out what people need and what’s going wrong,” she explains. “Our findings will be made publicly available. At the same time, we are working with software engineering students who are looking at the parameters of possible not-for-profit, Ontario-based technical solutions.”
Bromwich says the results of the study should be available by next summer.