The literature on informal dispute resolution and family law has long recognised the influence of the shadow of the law on legal option generation and negotiations outside the courtroom. The term ‘shadow of the law’ was first coined by Robert Mnookin and Lewis Kornhauser in an influential 1979 article in the Yale Law Journal. They used the term to refer to the impact of substantive law on informal negotiations and dispute resolution processes, with particular emphasis on family law matters. Even in informal dispute resolution contexts, Mnookin and Kornhauser observed, the law still provides the implicit backdrop and framework for negotiations.
Later authors have added sophistication and depth to Mnookin and Kornhauser’s analysis. None of this research, however, directly answers the question of how participants in family dispute resolution in the current digital age source their information about the legal context. A recent article by Rachael Field, Lisa Toohey, Helen Partridge, Lynn McAllister and myself sets out to explore this issue through an empirical study of participants in family dispute resolution. The information gathered through this research helps us to better understand the sense in which family dispute resolution may be said to take place in the shadow of the law.
The data from our study exposes the current conception of the shadow of the law as incomplete and insufficient. In particular, our results show that individuals acquire legal information of varying levels of reliability and credibility by relying on a range of formal and informal sources. Online sources are particularly influential in shaping parties’ understanding of the law, while discussions with family and friends also play an important role. Professional legal advice, by contrast, plays a relatively minor role for many participants. A significant proportion of parties do not or cannot access professional legal advice, while those who do access such advice do not necessarily regard it as the more important factor in their perceptions.
Our article therefore argues for a broader understanding of the concept of the shadow of the law and a more realistic conception of how that shadow influences the decision-making of parties in family law disputes. Family dispute resolution, we suggest, does not take place in the shadow of the positive law (the law contained in statutes, case law and other formal legal sources), so much as the shadow of the folk law (the law as depicted in informal sources such as online materials and popular media). Furthermore, there is not just one shadow of the law, reflecting the current state of the positive legal materials; rather, there are multiple shadows, depending on the parties’ socio-economic backgrounds and where they are gaining their information.
Government agencies, mediation providers and others involved in providing post-separation advice and information need to be aware of the influence that the folk law exerts on parties’ expectations. For government agencies and other advisors, there is a need to provide straightforward, accessible and digestible information about post-separation options, recognising that this information is likely to be accessed alongside a multiplicity of other sources. Mediators, likewise, need to be mindful that parties to family dispute resolution may come to the process with divergent understandings of the legal framework for their dispute. Mediators may need to reflect upon their own understandings of the law and ask how closely they might match or differ from the folk law that influences the parties.
 Robert Mnookin and Lewis Kornhauser, ‘Bargaining in the Shadow of the Law: The Case of Divorce’ (1979) 88 Yale Law Journal 950.
 See, for example, Becky Batagol and Thea Brown, Bargaining in the Shadow of the Law: The Case of Family Mediation (Federation Press, 2011); Jeremy Feigenbaum, ‘Bargaining in the Shadow of the “Law”: The Case of Same-Sex Divorce’ (2015) 20 Harvard Negotiation Law Review 245; Herbert Jacob, ‘The Elusive Shadow of the Law’ (1992) 26 Law and Society Review 565.
 Jonathan Crowe, Rachael Field, Lisa Toohey, Helen Partridge and Lynn McAllister, ‘Bargaining in the Shadow of the Folk Law: Expanding the Concept of the Shadow of the Law in Family Dispute Resolution’ (2018) 40 Sydney Law Review 319.