Online divorce research: fitter, happier, more productive?

The LSCP have published some interesting research into the online delivery of divorce services, comparing online and face to face services for the first time, at least in this country.

“The objectives of this research were to provide insight into the consumer experience of divorce and to seek to understand whether this differs by type of channel e.g. face to face services vs. online services.” The intention also was to understand potential regulatory risks as regards the tow models.

Clients of the two services were surveyed at periodic intervals during the handling of their case and at the end of the case.  The aim was to get more reliable and episodic data rather than simply relying on one survey at the end of the case where customer perceptions may be influenced by outcomes.  Just over 180 clients were interviewed or surveyed.

As the researchers say, “sample sizes are small.”  But, “the research allows [one might say “may allow”] some comparisons between the different groups in terms of their experience of the service.”  What kinds of things did they find?

The chief earner in online divorces, “was more likely to be in a higher managerial position” than a user of face to face services, suggesting there may be some greater inhibition of more regular members of the public using online services.  Conversely, “the value of the estate for people using a face to face service was twice that of online services” suggesting more complex disputes were handled face to face.  Divorces handled online appeared to be generally more amicable (they may have been more amicable to start with or being online may have kept them more amicable, though the report suggests they started off as more amicable online) and less likely to involved domestic violence (although a third of online divorces were reported as having involved domestic violence).  We are not told whether these differences are significant.  They may be simply be random patterns in small samples.

We are told there is, “a high degree of self-selection with consumers making rational choices about choosing the online route.”  The rational choice argument has picked up some press so it is worth dwelling on what the researchers mean here.   Self-selection means that the researchers are limited in the comparisons that can legitimately make been online and face to face clients.  The implication is that the nature of the cases are different (online cases seem to be more amicable and less complicated) and we might not be able to read very much into a comparison of consumer experiences as a result.    The rational choice argument needs some qualification: what the survey shows is that some (perhaps most) clients think of their choices based on some rational criteria.  I think my divorce is less complicated and amicable and I feel reasonably confident I can do it online so I choose to do it on line.  This kind of rationality judgment is a fairly limited assessment of the quality of those choices.  It does not tell us that the consumer assessment of their own situation is accurate (a divorce perceived as simple may in fact be complex) or that they make the best choice of service for their problems (it is possible, for instance, that (some) heated divorces may be better dealt with online).

So whilst online divorces were “reported to be significantly cheaper” this may be (the researchers observe but do not model this statistically) because, “the complexity and time required on the case, are also likely to be relevant factors here”. Those using a face to face provider found costs were higher than they expected about twice as often as (41%) than online (19%).  If these figures are representative; client care, cost prediction and management still, it seems, has some way to go in traditional legal provision but also -interestingly – online even given greater fixed pricing.  Whether it is better online depends in part as to whether one expects more or less predictability when cases are less complex.

Similarly, one has to bear in mind the different needs and expectations of the two sets of consumers when we hear their evaluation of the service.

“Almost 9 in 10 online petitioners said they would broadly get any future divorce via an online provider. Further, the ‘customer effort’ scores were much lower among online users.

“…There are good levels of satisfaction across all providers (79% for face to face providers and 83% for online providers) and no fundamental issues to address.

“It is clear that online users are nearly three times as likely to recommend their online provider when compared to users of a typical high street law firm.”

It’s a big looking difference, and heartening for those who believe significant (but not all) legal advice delivery can be managed online, but we really need a stronger basis of comparison.

The most important finding is really this:

“Overall from the consumer experience of the process, the research did not find any evidence of any regulatory risks arising from the delivery of services online. While there is room for service improvement in both methods of delivery, there is no evidence to suggest that petitioners initially chose the ‘wrong’ channel and therefore changed midway through the process.”

This finding needs some qualification.  There is a gentle hint in the words, “from the consumer experience of the process” that the finding is a limited one, but it perhaps merits a bit more spelling out.  We know that consumer satisfaction with legal services delivery is generally (and this seems to be true whatever model you are looking at) very high.  We also know that where consumer satisfaction is compared with a more technical or expert assessment of quality (or risk) then there will be a significant body of consumers (I’m thinking roughly in terms of about 20% but it could be higher or lower) who will be satisfied with their case handling even though they have, on an expert assessment, received help which is flawed, less than competent or worse.  This research provides no assessment of that potential problem.  It is to be contrasted with, for example, the work done on wills by IFF for the Legal Services Board and others when reservation of will writing was on the agenda.  That too had small samples but a better assessment of risk.

That said, as long as it is not held out as a thorough risk assessment, the LSCP is to be applauded for conducting research in this important area.  Such small samples and limited methods are not a basis for sound policy, but they are an inevitable result of meagre research budgets and a longstanding culture within the legal profession that they know how the world works and reserchers cannot help them.  It at least provide some illumination on what clients think of online legal services in the key area of family law.  The work also suggests, but no more than suggests, that there is considerable potential for cheaper (and so more accessible) online services to work well.

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About Richard Moorhead

Director of the Centre for Ethics and Law and Professor of Law and Professional Ethics at the Faculty of Laws, University College London with an interest in teaching and research on the legal ethics, the professions, legal aid, access to justice and the courts.
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One Response to Online divorce research: fitter, happier, more productive?

  1. Running a divorce law firm of my own, I have experience with both online and face-to-face. Many people like face-to-face because they think it’s faster and easier. However, like you said in your post, more heated divorces should be taken care of online.

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