Helping separated parents resolve child arrangement disputes

Ministry of Justice

Image of the output from a service blueprinting workshop

Problem

The number of separated parents applying to court to resolve their child arrangements disputes - such as where children should live - has been increasing each year since legal aid was abolished for private law matters in 2013.

As of 2017, cases where neither parent had legal representation had increased 50%, while there was a decrease in out-of-court dispute resolutions - for instance, mediation saw a 50% reduction in intake meetings.

The increasing demand on the Family Court causes delays for vulnerable families who really need to attend court - along with increasing pressure and costs for the courts. Evidence also shows that court entrenches conflict between parents, leading to less sustainable agreements, which in turn has a negative impact on children.

Image of stored court applications in Luton Family Court

Stored court applications in Luton Family Court

Approach

I led the design as part of a multidisciplinary team with embedded policy members, partnering with representatives from Cafcass, working together to develop a coherent service alongside a new policy initiative in Family Justice.

We built on existing research from the Ministry of Justice and Cafcass to get a head start. Through a synthesis of quantitative and qualitative data we identified behavioural patterns, along with gaps in knowledge, which required further investigation to discover and understand the problems and opportunities.

Communicating all parts of a service

I created a service map to visualise the differing parts of the existing end-to-end service, enabling the team and stakeholders to see how the service worked for everyone. This included sequenced user actions, touchpoints they interact with (on and offline), artefacts they require / create, costs throughout, and the systems behind the scenes. This helped us identify problems and opportunities (particularly upstream) throughout the existing service.

Workshop image between the core team and partnered stakeholders

Workshop between the core team and partnered stakeholders

Framing problems to facilitate design thinking through workshops

Working with the Family Justice policy team, I designed and facilitated design sprint workshops for policy colleagues, along with representatives from the charity and legal sector. Activities with participants were planned to identify goals and contextualise the existing service through understanding parents within the journey. This helped us identify problems in context of the journey, framing them as ‘How Might We’ opportunities, which were prioritised collectively by the participants. This promoted stakeholder alignment and clear, agreed focus for the delivery team for the next phase of work.

Image example showing a theme of ideas generated during a workshop

Example of a theme of ideas generated during a workshop

Failing fast

We tested and iterated solutions around a series of themed hypotheses - interaction between parents (including high conflict relationships), information and guidance, making informed choices, and the process of applying to court.

In the case that our hypotheses were false - and user needs were not being met - we were trusted as a team to recommend parking initiatives based on evidence.

Image of high-level idea sketches

High-level ideas mapped to themes

Insights

We validated existing insights - for example, there is a lack of adequate information for separating parents, and that they find it difficult to engage and communicate with each other.

We also discovered fresh insights - for example abolishing legal aid had inadvertently promoted attending court without legal representation as the cheapest option for resolving child arrangement disputes; while mediation was perceived as costly (also no longer eligible for Legal Aid), time consuming, and with no guarantee of resolution.

Test image

Parent profile as part of the Value Proposition Canvas

Analysing and planning for failure

Due to the emotional complexity and potential risks throughout the service, I developed ‘stress cases’ - considering people who might fall outside of the parameters of common use cases (for example, domestic abuse, child abuse, and parents with abduction concerns). This helped us identify high-risk gaps within the service that may lead to failure, which we investigated further to identify the root causes so that we could plan for the worst case scenarios in our service, helping us mitigate the risk of failure by being prepared for them.

Outcomes

The wider team and stakeholders developed a deep understanding of the needs of separating parents and policy initiative. By understanding how parents are currently achieving their needs, we produced a coherent vision for a future service - joining together proposed and existing services to help separating parents make suitable, sustainable child arrangements. We also created an incremental strategy for how to realise this vision - prioritising touchpoints in which user needs were not being met along with areas of high risk, followed by areas with considerable room for improvement.

The court application (“C100”) form was identified and prioritised to develop further, in which I led the design. The existing solution was a lengthy, complicated, paper-only form that was full of legal jargon. In order to attend court, applicants have to show evidence in their application that they have attempted mediation, which had come to be perceived as a hurdle in which the other parent wasn’t engaged in the process - contrary to the intent of the policy initiative.

The court entry point presented an opportunity to set realistic expectations and educate parents about their appropriate out-of-court options (including mediation) - while fast-tracking parents with concerns of domestic abuse, child abuse, and abduction.

I had the exceptional pleasure of hiring Andrew during my time at the Ministry of Justice. Andrew is an excellent designer – pragmatic, agile, thoughtful in his approach, and deliberate in his execution. From the start, he integrated into the service team seamlessly and was able to immediately deliver value to the in-progress service transformation.

Chris Govias
Chief of Design

Working with Andrew has been a pleasure. His character makes it easy to plan and adapt to different policy steers. He always has a positive attitude and I really hope I am able to work with him again in the future.

Mohini Jannath
Policy Manager at Ministry of Justice

More case studies