I have previously written about the desire of Family Law Partners to push the boundaries of innovation and legal practice. I described it in terms akin to “desire” and “obsession” that suggest a clinical condition rather than a business development objective. There is much hype, even within the quiet corridors of lawyers’ practices about innovation and technology. The premise in my last post was that Family Law Partners did not just talk about innovation but actively sought to put flesh on the bones of radical practice. I promised to remove the dust sheets and reveal the various projects and magnificent obsessions that have driven us over the past several years.
So, here is the first reveal; child maintenance and the calculation thereof. Parents separate, often on bad terms struggling to find a useful level of communication. In the post-separation period the communication can break down entirely, shot through with recriminations. The welfare of children can sometimes be obscured not least in the domestically mundane, but crucial, area of child maintenance. Being able to put clothes on your child’s back or food in their bellies is basic stuff but you need money to achieve it. The suspension of financial assistance by one parent to meet a child’s needs even for a temporary period can cause great hardship. Needless to say, the Child Maintenance Service (formerly the Child Support Agency) exists in order to determine and compel the payment of child maintenance in the absence of an agreement between the parents. Nobody in their right minds really wants to use the Child Maintenance Service because you have to pay for the privilege and deduction is made in the amount of child support that otherwise should go to meet a child’s needs.
In 2013 the Child Maintenance Service changed the way in which it calculated child maintenance. On the face of it, the formula would be much simpler based as it was upon gross income received by the parent who would have to pay child maintenance.
A government sponsored website even provided an online calculator so parents could work out the appropriate amount of child maintenance without having to use the Child Maintenance Service.
Joined-up policy thinking at last, yes? No, not really. And this is where I lost the plot. How can an administration charged with the welfare of children produce such a poorly designed online calculator? My charge sheet read as follows:
- the calculator only allowed the crudest of calculations to be carried out;
- the calculator did not display its working out in sufficient detail;
- the calculation would disappear as soon as the user left the website;
- the result of the calculation could not be captured and emailed to the co-parent, a mediator or a lawyer to enable agreement on the maintenance to be paid;
- it was one ugly looking website.
The lack of thought in the design of the website chimed perfectly at the time with the lack of consideration given to the impact on separating families who were no longer able to obtain legal advice under the Legal Aid Scheme.
This all made me rather angry. But instead of shrugging my shoulders I decided it was time to give a damn and to channel the anger into creating my own child maintenance calculator.
It was a bit of a challenge and it took me nine months (I do have a day job after all). I wanted to create a child maintenance calculator that would set out the figures used in some of the calculations so both parents could understand and check the figures for accuracy. I wanted the result of the child maintenance calculation to be automatically captured in as nice a format as I could design and for it to be automatically emailed to the user of my calculator.
I even built into the design the ability for the user to forward the calculation, accompanied with a friendly explanation behind the purpose of the calculation from myself, to their co-parent, or a mediator or to a lawyer.
In short, I wanted to build in every possibility to promote ease of communication and transparency between the parents. I even made sure that the calculator could be used on a tablet or a smartphone. Finally, I made sure that the calculator was free.
I set up the calculator in 2014. I didn’t forget about it, in fact, I have often wanted to go back and add extra features but other projects were also vying for my time. I was aware that the calculator was being heavily used not just by parents, but also by lawyers from across the country. I’m quite pleased by this. I would like to think that my calculator, built out of sticky back plastic, crude coding and righteous anger, has kept hundreds of parents talking about what matters most-their children-and out of the clutches of the Child Maintenance Service.
By the way, when I last checked, my little creation had calculated over £10 million worth of child maintenance. That’s 10 million reasons to give a damn.
Want to talk about innovation in legal services?