Mental Health & Family Law: The Social Lab Experiment Continues

Mental Health & Family Law: The Social Lab Experiment Continues

By: Paul Di Libero*

What happens when a family doctor, a few lawyers, some academics, social workers, psychologists and mental health professionals get together? As we’re discovering in short order at the Winkler Institute, quite the opposite of the bad joke you might expect. As we wrote about here, a group of multidisciplinary professionals met to kick off the Family Justice and Mental Health Social Lab in November of last year. Since that inaugural meeting, significant progress has been made towards our shared goal of making concrete improvements to the family justice system whilst learning more about social lab innovation along the way.

Recommended by the Winkler Institute for its flexible design characteristics. Social labs are, by design, spaces of experiment, where, much like science labs, people are encouraged to generate many different ideas – the wilder the better – design prototypes, test them, adjust their design and test again. By creating a safe space for experimentation, social labs leave room for unanticipated insights and creative thinking that paves the way for innovative outcomes.

In late February, the Social Lab team met to begin the process of better understanding the needs of clients with mental health issues who are navigating the family justice system. The activity we used to kick off this process was a “jobs-to-be-done” exercise, which we adapted to map out a series of tasks – legal and non legal –that a user with mental health challenges might have to complete during a typical marriage breakdown. The twist? We simulated the experience with three different personas: (1) resource rich and mentally healthy, (2) moderate resources with common mental health difficulties, and (3) resource poor with severe mental health challenges. Mapping out the jobs-to-be-done by each of these three archetypes revealed a great deal about what our justice system does well, what it does not, and how it addresses mental health issues. Some findings were expected by the group, for example, the observation that resource poor users and those suffering from debilitating mental illness have a difficult time navigating the justice system; but other discoveries surprised us, for instance, when we learned that the least supported class of users might very well be those with moderate means and common mental health problems, who will not have access to legal aid support and whose depression or anxiety will likely go unrecognized as a barrier to justice accessibility. To read the full report on our second session, click here.

These and other takeaways informed our third and most recent session – a rapid brainstorming session – where we met to generate ideas about how to address some of the areas of need revealed through our jobs-to-be done exercise.  These areas of need included:

  • Building mental health competency across the system. This includes exploring specific ways in which stigmas and professional uncertainty around mental health create barriers at many points in the system.
  • Exploring ways to improve communication and ease tension between various actors who, at times, are trying to achieve very different goals. (E.g. child protection vs. comprehensive approach to family wellness – in whatever form the family has or will take).
  • Building solutions that focus on collaborative care and improving the environment in which people with mental health challenges deal with family law matters. This could include examining solutions that create more flexibility in the system, encourage a team approach to care, or explore changes to the physical environments where clients receive advice, care, and solve their legal problems.

The logic behind rapid brainstorming suggests that coming up with a multitude of good ideas will yield at least a few great ideas. In a short 20 minute sprint the team shared more than 150 different ideas and suggestions – from the wildly creative to starkly logical – that could serve as starting points for the solutions we want to develop in the above mentioned areas. The best and brightest ideas were identified by the group and sorted into long-shot, darling, delight, and rationally “do-able” categories to determine their feasibility (it turns out that strategies for pony-betting carry over surprisingly well when it comes to ranking ideas). As a result of the team’s energetic and imaginative thinking we now have a pool of potential solutions to work on. Our next steps will involve narrowing that pool down, and forming working groups to begin developing prototypes with the ideas that could significantly improve the Ontario family justice system. We’ll keep you posted.


* Paul Di Libero recently completed his JD at Osgoode, where he worked to improve the presence of family law on campus as president of the Osgoode Family Law Association. He has a background in Social Justice and Peace Studies and Philosophy from King’s University in London, and is interested in the application of social enterprise to the justice sector. Paul participated in Osgoode’s Clinical Mediation Program and the school’s inaugural Legal Information Technology course. He has a passion for all things related to alternative dispute resolution, technology, and design and is currently a Winkler Institute Research Assistant.