Virtual Law Centres: virtues and viability

There is some curiosity, at least among some UK funders, at whether there might be anything in the idea of a virtual law centre. Let’s begin with a straightforward – if, by no means simple, – question. What would a successful one look like and what considerations would it raise?

We need a definition. If you search the term online, you get a rather bafflingly diverse set of results. These include a Virtual Self-Help law centre in one of California’s courts, Contra Costa county; a legal provision based in Second Life which advices on aspects of the law relating to virtual worlds; a company that provides directors for companies registered at London’s Companies House; and, finally and most valuably for this purpose, Bristol Law Society’s report of the award of a grant to Bristol and Avon Community Law Centre. This is ‘to investigate the viability of setting up a Virtual Law Centre to serve the wider South West’ through which ‘people who cannot afford legal advice will be able to receive one off advice from a qualified and experienced lawyer via Skype. Initially the advice will be provided by pro bono solicitors based in Bristol, via the Law Centre.’

Let’s take up the last and explore a little further. This post is intended to open a discussion of a virtual law centre defined by the following elements (without prejudice to other virtual and vital provision which might be provided otherwise):

a. not for profit organisation akin to what one would expect of a ‘law centre’ in England and Wales or its equivalent around the world – such as community law centres in Australia or community legal clinics in Ontario;

b. the provision of a range of legal advice and assistance up to and including what Americans would call ‘full service representation’ in court proceedings;

c. coverage in the fields of what we call ‘social welfare law’ and North Americans might recognise as ‘poverty law’ – and therefore including civil legal issues disproportionately affecting those on low incomes such as housing, immigration, asylum, employment, social security, discrimination and community care;

d. operation primarily or exclusively through the internet.

There are good reasons to explore what might be developed from the idea. England and Wales, like most other jurisdictions, faces increasing need and dwindling provision. In addition, we are bedevilled by a historical division between a largely lay advice sector dedicated to giving basic advice and the more specialist, lawyer assistance that community law centres grew up to meet in the early 1970s. All the need revealed at that time – and which legal aid subsequently went on, at least, to some extent, to meet through generous legal advice schemes – is re-emerging. Indeed, it is being intensified by the current years of austerity in all government funding; greater homelessness and poverty;  the growing imbalance of power between the citizen who is poor and the state that is controlling resources; and with existing services close to being overwhelmed by demand.  It is well accepted that England and Wales has growing ‘advice deserts’ where people on low incomes with legal problems have increasingly little recourse to local advice agencies or legal provision. Legal Geek recently organised a hackathon precisely based on what technology might do. That unlocked a lot of creativity and excitement but this focussed more on technology than substance – the how rather than the what.

In this context, let us leave the issue, admittedly important, of whether such a virtual law centre might be any kind of rival or alternative to physical provision. We must accept the fact  of digital exclusion (admitted by the English government as covering a fifth of the population, undoubtedly disproportionately to be found among the poorest and most marginal groups.) But, we can still  ask what can be provided digitally and we can probably comfort ourselves with the observation that it is better to expose need rather than to conceal it. If a virtual law centre could deliver both high volume general advice and high quality specialist advice to leverage the resources of existing services then that must be a benefit – for all that digital exclusion will have to reckoned with. So, let’s conceive the virtual as working in tandem with the physical and give our attention to how this might be done.

The concept of a ‘virtual law or legal practice’ – of which a virtual law centre must be, in a way a sub-genre –  is well established and has attracted considerable attention, particularly in the United States. In particular, Stephanie Kimbro has written widely on the topic. In Virtual Law Practice: How to Deliver Legal Services Online  she deployed the following definition: ’a professional law practice that exists online through a secure portal and is accessible to both the client and the lawyer anywhere the parties may access the Internet.’ A 2014 American Bar Association Techreport, written by the head of the ABA’s Legal Technology Resource Center, Joshua Poje, accepted this as a working definition and studied the field for the ABA. Mr Poje concluded:

The last decade has brought significant change to the legal profession. The ascendancy of technology paired with the chaos of a serious economic crisis has changed attitudes about what the practice of law can and should look like. Lawyers are embracing opportunities to be more efficient and competitive while simultaneously seeking more balance in their professional and personal lives. Virtual law practice, in its various forms, fits squarely into that nexus of efficiency, effectiveness, and balance. All lawyers should be watching the trends closely, even if they have yet to take the plunge themselves.

The definition of virtual legal practice, if Ms Kimbro’s is accepted, is wide and would cover a range of legal practice from practitioners conducting business only through the internet to those with more conventional practices but which use video for communication with clients.

Virtual law centres might manifest in a similar range of forms and it might be helpful to divide these up under the overall headings of services provided and organisational requirements.

Services provided might include:

(a) online triage and referral. An example of this function in action would be Illinois Legal Aid Online whose website explores a user’s type of problem and preferred source of assistance to see if they can match up. The Legal

(b) online information that would help a user to resolve their own problem. Good domestic examples would be www.citizensadvice.org.uk or www.advicenow.org.uk as national services; or Shelter’s provision on web-based specialist housing advice.

(c) online personally tailored legal information, advice and documents. MylawBC is an example of a website which, using interactivity based on the Dutch Rechtwijzer, seeks to give individualised answers to queries and to produce some documents, such as wills, through automated document software.

(d) online communication with clients and potential clients through various internet-based communication tools such as chat facilities or Skype. This, like the category above, requires that users’ privacy is respected to industry standards.

(e) integration with systems of court-based online dispute resolution. As courts around the world implement online procedures, particularly for small claims, there will be an opportunity for virtual law centres to be one way in which users can access them.

(f) the gathering of evidence of need and the drivers of demand with the potential to collect information on structural failures in a systemic way – for example, to analyse systemically the failures of social security adjudication so well illustrated in the fictional case of “I David Blake’.

(g) exploration of innovative ways of delivering services – some of which might include ways of mobilising pro bono assistance in a structured way within the organisation.

There will be a number of organisational requirements on virtual law centres – which will, in essence, be much the same as exist on physical law centres. They will need:

(a) secure operating systems capable of allowing both users and centre staff to operate remotely and, in particular, sufficiently good access to the internet both for themselves to operate and their users;

(b) decisions on whether satellite bodies, such as libraries, might assist users in accessing online provision;

(c) sufficiently robust customer management systems to store information, presumably in the Cloud and for centre staff to be able to manage the nature and quality of third party providers of assistance, such as pro bono lawyers;

(d) sufficient staff to be viable as organisations. There may be practical implications to this. It may well be that a good model for a virtual law centre would be as an adjunct to an existing physical ones and seen as a way of leverage their staffing and expertise assets e.g. by extending services to an adjoining advice desert. This way of proceeding would also have the advantage of stressing that a virtual law centre is no threat to existing provision but more of a way of extending its work at the lowest possible cost;

(e) an entrepreneurial spirit committed to exploring the online medium to the maximum extent and documenting their success or failure. At this early stage, there would seem considerable value both to funders and providers of setting up systems that, for example, monitor every clicked referral to another website.

(f) a capacity to provide training – perhaps using innovative online methods – for full time and volunteer staff as well perhaps direct to users themselves.

So, we can go some way in determining the issues that arise from the idea of a virtual law centre, as in the Bristol and Avon model. The next steps are to improve this initial analysis and to look at specific examples of projects in this country and overseas that give practical insight on the issues identified above.

All thoughts are welcome. Success with a viable model would provide a tremendous opportunity to provide low cost services at least to some users who live in areas where currently no provision exists. Some will argue that this is too low an ambition and might shake the case for fully funded services of the conventional kind. That is possible. But more likely is that the value of documenting and satisfying some need will precipitate more assistance where none is now available. The model of a virtual law centre could prove attractive to a range of funders and provide a vehicle by which the relatively low level of existing assistance can be leveraged over the country. In that context, monitoring and evaluation of services provided would be critical.

To give some structure to discussion, the kind of questions that funders are asking are:

What is a Virtual Law Centre?

Why should we be interested?

What services could a virtual Law Centre deliver?

What other roles could virtual Law Centres play?

What are the organisational requirements?

How do we learn about success and failure?

What needs to happen to explore the concept further?

So, how do we reply?

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