The Wrong Track: Technology’s Negative Impact on Family Law
Published on 05 February, 2020 | Katie Welton-Dillon
When one thinks of various professions which have been impacted on by technology, law might not spring most readily to mind.
However, on the whole, successive decades have seen the way that cases are managed across a whole breadth of legal disciplines made much simpler by the adoption of new, computer-powered systems.
That’s not to say, though, that technology is not without its problems.
For instance, a report has been published by the UK’s largest domestic violence charity, Refuge, claiming that almost three-quarters of the women and children who use its service have experienced what it describes as ‘tech abuse’ (https://www.refuge.org.uk/72-of-refuge-service-users-identify-experiencing-tech-abuse/).
The study found that some of the victims had been targeted on social media, had spying equipment or software placed in their homes, and even had GPS trackers attached to their cars.
It makes for shocking reading but the most shocking thing of all is that such misconduct is, as has Refuge has discovered, not that unusual.
Two of my Hall Brown colleagues have, in fact, remarked upon how technology has affected divorces.
Laura Guillon wrote on this ‘blog about cases involving spouses opening each other’s mail, accessing their respective e-mail accounts or reading through confidential business documents in an attempt to gain their upper hand in such proceedings (https://hallbrown.co.uk/divorce-dos-donts-snooping/).
So ready is the availability of some material relevant to the end of a marriage that Abigail Lowther informed the Daily Mail that private investigators were being used far less frequently to gather evidence (https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4957470/Private-detectives-no-longer-needed-break-industry.html).
This kind of behaviour is not only a feature of cases focusing on husbands and wives.
As head of Hall Brown’s Children’s team, I’ve seen the use of technology in the way described by Refuge become ever more common – with popular applications such as Apple’s FaceTime employed to gain remote access to the home where their children live with a former partner or software designed to track mobile devices.
Such systems are designed for positive communication but can, of course, be used for more sinister purposes.
They’re also free and don’t require the spending of large sums of money to achieve the objective of, say, demonstrating whether a child is happy with his or her living arrangements.
Nevertheless other cases have come before the courts in which parents go further – in one instance, installing a small camera in a child’s jacket to enable discreet, undetected surveillance.
Back in October 2017, the then President of the Family Court, Sir James Munby, also noted that the issue of covert recording was a “topic of growing significance” (https://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed181740).
I should point out, of course, that the kind of recording made possible by things such as smart doorbells can be of use when children are dropped off or picked up by non-resident parents, something which often happens away from public places.
Even so, we generally advise clients to think twice about making any recording because of the potential complications.
In my experience, individuals can become so driven by the need to prove a particular point that they lose sight of the sort of practical implications which might actually undermine their argument.