The project focused on the current experience of financially and emotionally struggling British citizens who require support in cases of familial separation and child custody, but are not entitled to benefits.
Service Design Award 2019 Finalist Project
Clarify: Early guidance service for separated parents - by Natalia Carrasco
Category: Student / Royal College of Art
Client: Government / Ministry
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As a service designer I aim to instill new capabilities in citizens so that they feel empowered when facing new challenges. I use service design to reduce inequality by promoting wider access to public resources and by generating strategies that harness technology and an individual’s own assets to create better civic education and social resilience.
For the final project of my MA in Service Design I wanted to explore how to better design services to enable wider access to justice. I had the opportunity to work with a national partner to improve support for people that are unable to afford legal advice in the UK.
Why is this relevant? because since the 2012 LASPO reform, the vast majority of UK citizens have been left without free legal advice. They therefore struggle to understand and access the legal system, and consequently pursue ineffective courses of action which negatively impact the individuals and families involved and the government - which, at the moment, doesn’t have the system capacity to provide support and absorb the demand.
The project focused on the current experience of financially and emotionally struggling British citizens who require support in cases of familial separation and child custody, but are not entitled to benefits. With the aim to reduce parental conflict and the likelihood of recurrent problems, while lowering unnecessary demand on government and the 3rd sector.
It is highly relevant that users without safeguarding issues avoid court because the process is long, it creates more conflict between parents, decreases the mental and physical wellbeing of parents and children, while creating severe financial struggles.
In order to understand how to help parents make inform decisions I conducted 15 indepth interviews with policy makers, researchers in family justice, separated parents dealing with living arrangements, legal advisors and charities. Additionally, I did 22 hours of shadowing users at key moments of the process, when seeking support through advice centres and third sector institutions.
From the justice system I learnt that the system is rigid and bureaucratic: it can be inflexible and very hard for users to understand. There is a lack of transparency around the implications and realities of the legal system, and there is lack of assessment in the decision making process. The system is creating dependencies on legal advice due to poor communication. It doesn’t allow informed decision making because users are not prepared to manage the process.
I found that there is a very ineffective use of time in law clinics: almost 70% of time is dedicated to help people decide what they want instead of giving actual legal advice. The advice sector also needs an easier way to recruit and integrate volunteers.
“The system is unfair in the sense that citizens are not prepared properly to deal and manage the situations that they will face, for example they can miss out opportunities or decide ineffective courses of action” - volunteer at support entity for litigants in person in London.
Through meeting separated parents I learnt that they have misconceptions of the justice system and that there is a great need for the parents to understand the impact of the legal process on their children.
Yet they are overwhelmed, especially as they are asked to self-assess in all aspects without any guidance. Including assessing their own safeguarding issues, which is something that only a professional can do.
It is important to add they don’t have the head space to deal with the situation and because of it they have very low awareness of alternative dispute resolution methods and the resources available. All of which leads low empowerment and an inability to make informed decisions.
“This is a full time job, it completely takes over your life” - separated father
“You had no head space to research and make decisions, I have been dealing with this at court for over two years and I had no idea these resources existed” - separated father
We should be aiming for a system that promotes independency, collaboration and dialogue. Creates resilience through educating about how to cope with these situations and that is transparent about the implications.
The research I conducted taught me that users require help to make informed decisions: they need a better understanding of their choices and the implications. Users also need to set goals and priorities to be able to identify the best resolution pathway for them. Once committed to a route, they have to be able to manage and understand the advice provided.
With this in mind, I have designed Clarify - a step by step process that helps users dealing with child access arrangements after separation. Clarify matches users to advisors and to available resources from the government and the third sector.
The main focus of Clarify is to provide people with the time and resources to better understand their situation in order to suggest the best suited resources available and provide resolution pathways.
“I would say that currently actual legal advice is 30% of what we do now” - legal adviser
During this process, through the use of machine learning, we can constantly learn as a service how to trigger better reflections, how to communicate risk, how to present available options and learn to create suggestions based on the users’ interaction with Clarify.
It is important to highlight the relevance of the users’ edits and the resulting updates to suggestions because dealing with living arrangements after a separation is an ever changing situation so we need the system to understand when to give suggestions and how to constantly present them.
Clarify creates a trustworthy space for users to reflect, learn and explore concerns and access advice. For advisers it would be an additional tool and resource to have more productive appointments.
The main stages of the journey are as follows: starting with awareness, through my research I learnt that parents search for information online before they separate which is why the first touchpoint is the related subject Google search.
I’ve also learnt that parents look for testimonials to understand how to better face the situation. Hence I have created targeted advertisement for social media, with parent and child testimonials.
Then to create engagement, I have developed a landing page with parent stories, children stories and relevant information about the service.
In order to help parents assess their situation and sustainably find the right resolution pathway I have designed Clarify’s digital platform.
It includes an introduction to display the service’s core values creating trust by displaying the benefits and the security measure for the users.
To enhance users’ understanding of their situation, Clarify will ask them to fill in their profile which has five categories:
Child wellbeing - where they will define what are the child’s main needs are,
Their own personal wellbeing - where they will understand how emotionally ready they are to confront the situation,
Clarify will ask about the level of conflict to understand if they have a variety of issues or just one in particular,
The system will ask them about their time constrains
Finally understanding their money constrains.
This is all enhanced by some brief questions. Once completed, they will be offered an assessment with a social worker. Finally, they are provided with a visualised summery of what has been defined in each category.
Then they will need to prioritise, select a goal and a resolution pathway. Clarify will give them suggestions but they can still see all of the options available.
Once their profile is ready, they can find support, view and edit their profile, see and search the records of the advice they have received and share information with the other parent if they feel comfortable to do so.
So the main output of the assessment is an editable profile that they can share with professionals to easily explain their situation. Also they can share a selection of their priorities, their goals, their chosen pathway or simply an invitation to join Clarify with the other parent, if they wish.
They can also access a wide variety of support services, from legal advice to peer support and Clarify will keep a record of the advice they receive.
Clarify also provides a platform for advisers. Using the main menu they can choose the modality of work, so they can communicate online by video camera or face to face by appointments to their clinics.
The platform enables them to look for resources to recommend or for sign-posting their clients to relevant information. After the use of both modalities, they can leave a brief summary of the advice for the user to keep.
Along with the service proposition, it was important for me to create valuable and easy to implement resources to improve the system immediatley. Therefore I have created a profile with all the main self assessment questions for users in a printed template for people to physically fill in while they are in the waiting area of advice centres.
Also I have developed a website to display the step by step process based on series of questions with each step linked to available resources and suggestions.
TESTING, LEARNING AND ITERATIONS
I tested the proposition with a wide variety of stakeholders such as Institutions that provide pro bono advice services, experts, professionals advisors and users of advice centres.
Initially, I did a survey to test my key assumptions. I learnt that separated parents would use a service like this if it would save them time and if it explicitly stated that the information they shared cannot be used against them in the legal process.
Then I did 19 1:1 sessions to test desirability and feasibility and I learnt that the biggest challenges are maintaining the consistent updates of the relevant services offered.
Advisors found the service really helpful because it allows them to be aware of the non-legal options and of the wellbeing of their clients. They also feel that by having advisers on video call, they could get more volunteers into the system.
“I think the service is fantastic, for us (advisers) to understand the non-legal options available is greatly valuable, it’s exactly what you need from an adviser point of view.” - legal advisor
“I think one of the biggest drivers behind people using the service will be that they wanted to make things as cheap as possible. And if you manage to make them aware of the service early enough you will be enabling them to start the process earlier which means they’re less likely than going to go down very very legalistic routes which are more expensive and conflictive.” - legal advisor
Potential service partners found that Clarify is ‘exactly the way forward’ and that it is the kind of service that they ‘should be building’. But they are concerned with how we will manage the overall demand to match their current resources.
“I really like that your service includes the safeguarding assessment because that is really really important, and that is what we have been looking at in the pre-preceding process. If there were to be a process like this that came in before the application is made with some kind of level of assessment, it would be great because it would help us ensure that the decision that parent are making are safe for the child.” - Service potential partner
“I think it’s absolutely brilliant and I think this is exactly the way forward, this is the kind of service we should be building. Because is all about providing people with information, so If you give them a little bit information with a bit of guidance even if you are unable to provide them with tailored advice to their specific situation for whatever reason you have given them enough information for them to try to think differently” - Expert provider of family law advice
In my last iteration I did a workshop with four separated mums to test if the mindfulness of their situation and the options available could nudge their behaviour towards less conflictive resolution pathways, and also that the step by step process made sense and was valuable for them.
Through doing this activity I found that once they realised the amount of resolution options available, they are more aware of their situation and they are willing to engage more with informal resolution routes and less conflictive legal pathways.
They also found the step by step process useful but they didn’t like being signposted again to available resources and they made it clear that they need all the resources in one platform.
The proposition has had great feedback from users who found it very helpful and believed Clarify could help get them more personalised advice. They were eager to explore the non legal options they weren’t aware of before and were encouraged to understand and take into account their personal and child’s wellbeing.
“This is fantastic, I think if I had something like this when I was dealing with this situation, my experience would have been completely different, at that time I did not know where to start, what to do first and what was the best way to deal with it and in your proposal there are so many things that didn’t go through my mind at the time that could have made my situations much less frustrating and painful.”- Divorced father of two toddlers
Finally, in terms of the technology, I learnt through meeting with the entrepreneurs in the field of using machine learning for legal advice, that developing the algorithms for Clarify will not be complex or expensive but will be time consuming as it needs the research mapping all of the probable options and suggestion for all the possible scenarios.
So the overall outcomes of the service would be to increase the confidence level of users, their awareness, use and knowledge of the range of resolution routes. As well as to increase the number of happier and healthier childhoods in the UK by reducing the amount of court cases and decreasing the level of conflict in the coparenting relationships.
As a free service, in order for this proposition to be sustainable, there is a premium version also available which offers solicitor services. For this version users will pay £0.99 a month for the subscription and 3% of the fee would be charged to solicitors to promote their services through our platform.
I started this project at the same time as the Action plan from the Ministry of Justice was launched and this strategy has created an ecosystem of opportunities to transform the provision of legal advice by the use of technology. Today we have the opportunity to defend justice, to defend legal aid and finally to try to narrow the justice gap by providing people with the tools and knowledge to take action.
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