Video boosts the radio star: the possibilities of Skype in delivering legal advice

Video provides one way to leverage limited legal services’ resources. Two English projects, both funded by the Legal Education Foundation (the LEF, which also provides resources for this website), indicate the possibilities – particularly when used as a way of maximising pro bono assistance. They follow an earlier very similar use of video which has been absorbed within the routine way of working in a third agency. All three use Skype, regarded as less problematic in the UK than it has been in the US.

Legal Advice Centre  (University House) (LAC) is based in Bethnal Green, a traditionally poor area of London once the prowling ground of Jack the Ripper and now a centre for a large immigrant Bengali community. The centre pre-dates the law centre movement of the 1970s and was founded during the Second World War, as a late entry to the University Settlement movement. Among its past legal volunteers, it can boast the Blairs, Cherie and Tony, as well as Sir John Mortimer, creator of the fictional barrister Rumpole. The centre is substantial – larger than most law centres. It now has eight lawyers and a paralegal among its 11 staff. As a legacy of its history, it has support from City law firms and a breadth of funding that many law centres, largely tied to resources from their local authority, would die for. That clearly encourages a certain entrepreneurial spirt.

The LEF suggested to the centre that it might be interested in devising a project to help deliver services to Cornwall, a county in the far west of the country that includes Land’s End; has a lot of poverty with the decline of its once profitable tin mining and fishing industries, and is generally regarded as ‘an advice desert’, an area without acceptable advice provision. The LAC devised a project based on its successful use of Skype to deploy barristers in Chambers via video conferences to communicate with clients in Bethnal Green. This saved considerable time on travel for the lawyers.

The LAC formed partnerships with a community centre in Cornwall’s Falmouth (the Dracaena Centre) and the local Citizens Advice Bureau that struggles on a low budget to provide advice to the county.

LAC offers the Dracaena Centre two half day advice sessions by video. The Falmouth centre provides staff who manage the space, the bank of computers and the users . They provide assistance with uploading documents. The LAC staff advise on debt and social security as they would if they were physically present with the clients. For the CAB, the LAC  provides assistance with disability benefit appeals – of which there are glut as the Government seeks to restrict payments (see the bleak Ken Loach film, I Daniel Blake, which is little exaggeration). It does not provide representation but will produce a written statement of the client’s case. LAC’s director, Eddie Coppinger, claims a success rate of around ’80 per cent’.

It is still early days for the project. It has been up and running only for three months and it has taken time for users to filter through to the new provision. But it looks as if it will be a success. Mr Coppinger will be producing an assessment after another quarter. An interesting twist to the project is the involvement of pro bono lawyers from the commercial firms on the LAC’s doorstep. And a further twist to that may be the possibility of opening  a video clinic other than in the evening – US law firms in particular might be attracted to providing pro bono assistance before New York, with its later time, gets going.

Bristol and Avon Law Centre comes historically out of the mainstream law centre movement. However, cuts to once generous regional funding have encouraged it to look at getting contracts to deliver legal services out of its immediate area. Its Skype project is delivered in two areas of Somerset, a county in the west of England but considerably less remote than Cornwall. The basic package is the same: volunteer pro bono lawyers delivering advice by Skype at specified times of the week at the local offices of the citizens advice bureau. Again, there is the possibility to upload documents in advance. The pro bono lawyers operate either from the law centre or from their own offices. Services at present cover employment and family law.

The idea behind both projects is that they could become sustainable through a wider range of funding and pro bono resourcing by local lawyers. Both centres are happy with how the projects have begun. We should await their reports in the New Year on how well they have continued and how successfully they can sustain funding – though the model is cleverly devised to keep costs to the minimum and to represent a supplement to an already existing operation.

A number of centres in England and Wales have explored Skype. The most organised previous project was probably that run by Brighton Advice Centre.  This was evaluated by respected consultant Vicky Ling. and webcam connection now seems to be absorbed within the centre’s work. Ms Ling concluded that:

‘the major successes can be summarised as:  A good example of partnership working and collaboration between a wide range of voluntary sector organisations ; Strong user involvement the design of the service; Having overcome some initial scepticism to become a valued part of advice services in Brighton and Hove; Delivering additional casework in the complex areas of welfare rights and housing, which has become significantly less available since the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) became law in 2013;  Reaching client groups who find it difficult to access traditional face to face services; Increasing users’ confidence in accessing digital services more generally; Having potential for development through involving law students.’

She was particularly impressed by the potential opening up of new partnerships with the centres providing video for users.

Skype has particular advantages as the means of video communication in projects of this kind. It is relatively robust; many users will be familiar with it; it is easy to use; and many lawyers will have it on their desktop as part of the Microsoft Office. Americans – and those providing mental health services – will be uneasy about its confidentiality. All there projects had considered this and concluded that it was satisfactory for what they wanted to do. These projects are dealing with cases of relatively little security interest and would seem highly unlikely to be hacked. As systems like this proliferate, as the likely success of the projects suggests they will, security will have to be kept under review. But, for the moment, and for the United Kingdom, Skype does seem to have potential to increase the leverage of limited resources in the area of legal services for those on low incomes. And how much we need some good news on that front, these days.

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