This blog post continues to discuss the results of the research project led by Dr Tatiana Tkacukova and funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme Small Grant Scheme. 

Part I of the blog focused on the context of the study, the data collection process and the results of the semi-automated textual analysis. This part is devoted to ethical considerations behind data collection, reflections on research methods and discussion of the results from the second phase of the study. From the point of view of ethics, conducting research based on such platforms as forums, blogs, websites or other social media is a grey area: on the one hand, the information is in public domain and remains there for any LIP to see the advice provided for specific queries; on the other hand, the absence of explicit consent can be problematic.

Prior to data collection, the study obtained research ethics permission from Birmingham City University, which set out the procedures to be followed. These were also presented to the funding body as part of the funding application. The procedures for data collection from online public forum posts were slightly different from those for accessing data in invitation-only Facebook groups. One important consideration is that threads in open public forums are accessible to anyone and the history of previous threads can be used for educative purposes by the wider public. The study does not identify individual McKenzie Friends or forums included in the data set; furthermore, any personal information in the threads was anonymised. The general consensus among academics is that web-based sources in the public domain should be researched especially if the research is beneficial for the wider public (see, for instance, Melville’s study on McKenzie Friends linked to Fathers’ Rights Groups  here).

To access Facebook groups, the researcher created a project profile on Facebook and contacted moderators and administrators of the relevant Facebook groups explaining the purpose of the project. It was encouraging  that all Facebook groups that were contacted did allow us access for research purposes. In the end, three Facebook groups were chosen for the study due to their high number of users and administrators/moderators and the high frequency of regular posts on relevant topics. Facebook groups can be considered as ‘closed public spaces’ as the users do not tend to know each other but support each other and learn from each other; the groups are therefore used for educative purposes as well as marketing. Similarly to data from public online forums, any identifiable information from Facebook groups was anonymised. Since these groups are closed Facebook groups, it is much more difficult to identify the users based on any information or words/phrases as googling them will not lead to these groups; even using Facebook search function to look for specific words or phrases within these groups does not lead to specific threads. 

Part I of the blog discusses the results based on corpus linguistics, i.e. the language-based approach to textual data. For the purposes of this project the following corpus linguistics methods were used: 

  • identifying keywords (words that statistically stand out) in the McKenzie Friends’ responses or LIPs’ queries
  • identifying the most frequent words and sequences of words in queries & responses
  • identifying different collocations (e.g. words that occur in the proximity of the search term CAFCASS). 

This stage helped identify some of the functions performed by McKenzie Friends (as discussed in Part I) and therefore informed the coding system for the content analysis, which is the method commonly used in socio-legal research when specific categories are identified and explored across the dataset. Both phases of the project thus complement each other: the journey of the first phase leads from expression and words to interpretation while the second one starts with interpretation and leads to an overview of the chosen features across the dataset. The content analysis focused on the type and topic of LIPs’ queries as well as the functions and the overall quality of MFs’ responses. 

In the analysed datasets, the highest number of parents’ queries referred to the role of CAFCASS, local authority or social services; the rest of the queries were predominantly about child arrangements orders, domestic violence and adoption with a few of them related to, for instance, foster care, prohibited steps orders or specific issue orders. As expected, parents were seeking legal and procedural advice and information in equal proportions. 

McKenzie Friends’ responses performed the following functions (the categories are listed according to their frequency):

  • setting parents’ expectations in relation to courts, CAFCASS/social services, welfare of children 
  • sharing experience with similar cases or providing case law examples
  • signposting to legal aid, legal advice and other services
  • providing legal & procedural information to support decision-making
  • advising on legal strategy
  • providing general encouragement
  • providing information on court processes
  • discussing how to deal with lawyers (how to instruct lawyers, what to specifically ask them to do)
  • advising on case papers, court forms, witness statements
  • explaining how McKenzie Friends can support parents
  • advising on what to do during court hearings 

Looking further into the quality of advice, approximately half of the responses were found to be problematic due to a variety of reasons, e.g. McKenzie Friends taking a particular stance, being explicitly against an ex-partner of the forum user or explicitly criticising CAFCASS, social services or courts. In addition to instances of agenda-driven advice discussed in Part I, the second phase of the analysis revealed further examples of problematic McKenzie Friends’ responses, for instance:

  • advising not to reveal serious illnesses
  • advising to threaten the other parent to pursue parental alienation charges against them
  • asserting that many CAFCASS reports contain errors and false interpretations
  • suggesting it is better to remove children from the country to avoid foster care placement
  • advising against the advice of lawyers who are portrayed as reluctant  to challenge social services
  • suggesting there is no need to engage with social services (even when social services have made contact) until an order is made to do so

These issues thus range from problems with non-disclosure, obstructing justice and putting children in danger to issues which may have a negative impact on a post-separation relationship with the other parent. The situations illustrated above refer to problematic content but it is also non-conciliatory tone of many other responses that can divert the parents’ attention from the primary goal – the welfare of children. Obviously, since the advice is provided on social media, i.e. in the environment where evaluative comments and informal language are a norm, the more persuasive tone and expression help network with other McKenzie Friends and gain potential clients.

Despite instances of problematic advice, many McKenzie Friends provide a lot of useful advice on court procedures, legal strategy and the role of CAFCASS and social services. The problem is however that in the unregulated environment it can be difficult to ensure that McKenzie Friends’ clients get the appropriate support. One of the outcomes of the project was to create a leaflet on McKenzie Friends’ services. The research team decided to include a check list with different topics and questions that McKenzie Friends can be asked about (e.g. the strengths/weaknesses of the clients’ case and the other party’s case) or what to pay attention to (e.g. any agenda-driven or explicitly negative remarks against courts, CAFCASS, etc) when making a decision on whether to get support from a fee-charging McKenzie Friend. 

Feature pic : cracked mirror by Roland Tanglao on Flickr (Creative commons – thanks)