Law centres and Covid 19: canaries in the mine

Law centres provide a particularly sensitive indicator of access to justice. As Hammersmith and Fulham Law Centre puts it on their website: ‘We aim to help to overcome the obstacles faced by those most disadvantaged who need access to the legal system.’ That was written before the current Covid 19 outbreak but it is interesting to look at the experience of law centres during the pandemic to date and to start to draw the wider lessons. Technology is unavoidably at the heart of the discussion. Potential users in England and Wales, and many other places, cannot get out of their homes; support groups cannot meet in the community; official services are moving online with rapidity; and all this is happening while the most socially and economically disadvantaged face most difficulty in dealing with online communication. 

This article is based largely on the experience of centres in England and Wales of which there are 41 who are members of the Law Centres Network. The network has been beset by a number of recent high profile casualties from government austerity cuts that have affected centres, like that in the London Boroughs of Brent and Lambeth, which were close to 50 years old. Law centres were, from the mid-1970s, ancillary to a national legal aid scheme funding private practitioners to advise on any matter of English law. That legal advice scheme was, however, decimated by cuts introduced eight years ago. So, law centres and advice agencies – like the citizens advice service – now stand as lonely survivors of what was once an unplanned but relatively coherent pattern of national provision of advice. For those using the lockdown to catch up on their Hilary Mantel, the comparison might be made with the sad and isolated churches that survived – and can still be seen – among the ruins of the surrounding monasteries.

As you would expect, the first effect on centres has been a combination of increased demand and decreased capacity to meet it as centres emptied of staff and services had to be delivered remotely. Hammersmith and Fulham is, for example, now advertising itself as open for email or by phone in total for only four afternoons a week (each with a different speciality – EU settlement scheme Mondays, Immigration and Asylum Tuesdays, Housing and Homelessness Wednesdays and Benefits Problems on Thursdays). 

You can see how need has gone through the roof most clearly by looking at the statistics on use of the citizens advice website. Tweets from Citizens Advice staff (eg 2AZ_McCall and @gbyrne03 – see, in particular, her animated tweet of 15 April showing how topics are changing through the month) demonstrate how the pattern of advice rose astronomically from mid March. Coronavirus is dominating their case tracker in relation to its impact predominantly on employment, debt and benefits. But there are also other – but not so obvious – Corona-related issues such as a major rise in consumer disputes over online shopping.

Law centres are also picking up a new group of clients. They are, in the words of Law Centre Network director Julie Bishop, the ‘newly impoverished’ but, unlike their traditional clientele, they ’may be digitally competent’. But that still leaves those with little or no access to phones or the internet and who would have previously walked into law centres for assistance. Their numbers are augmented by those who are digitally competent enough, in the past, to have taken their mobile phone somewhere that had free wifi like some coffee shops and libraries. These are now shut. Centres are offering phone back facilities and some, like Hammersmith and Fulham, are raising money for low cost pre-paid services to help callers without any money on their phones.

Julie Bishop wonders whether a solution might lie at a corporate level. Mobile phone companies, their profits unaffected – even augmented – by Covid 19, might see their way to providing free or subsidised services for law centre outreach. Indeed, many countries have central toll-free numbers for issues like domestic abuse. In England and Wales, both NSPCC (for child abuse) and Victim Support both have hotline support 0808 numbers which are free to callers. In recognition of the current tsunami of problems, the government might well consider funding an agency – perhaps using pro bono assistance – to staff a number for referral of C19-related legal queries. Alternatively, individual benefactors or councils might see their way to funding law centres to provide free services at least for the next three months.

The focus on mobile phones is a reminder of the low tech capacity of the hardest to reach groups in society. Law centres have developed an SMS system of communication which has proved a boon because of its lack of cost – mirroring experience in low income countries like South Africa. Julie Bishop draws attention to an even lower tech solution to contact those whom previously centres would have been in touch with through community groups. She sees the need for leaflets to be distributed at food banks, in supermarket queues and elsewhere that disadvantaged people might still congregate. She also wants centres to secure coverage in local media – which for now is overwhelmingly the local Facebook and other neighbourhood groups through which local people or those of a particular ethnicity keep in touch. All this, she says, ‘is very low fi, very old fashioned’ but vital.

If communication with clients has fallen back on the phone, centres have used more advanced technology to organise themselves and to communicate internally. Prudently, the Legal Education Foundation (funder of this website) has recently paid for significant upgrading of the technology of a number of centres. For the rest, the Law Centres Network reports: ‘Many Law Centres have adapted quickly and have taken a number of their offline processes online. We have established a series of peer support calls to assist in facilitating discussions around this issue and others. We started with the managers/directors and are progressively facilitating forums for caseworkers/solicitor (e.g. immigration advisors) and plan to have calls with other staff groups (e.g. volunteer supervisors). This practice is incredibly useful and will be one that we plan to continue after COVID-19.’

Increased technology capacity has allowed the Law Centres Network to increase its services to members which have included: 

  • a new newsletter circulated several times a week that highlights issues affecting law centres ([Court] guidance, funding, digital and misc). 
  • negotiations with [Legal Aid Agency] and [the court service] … to ensure that law centre voices are heard.
  • working with private firms to support and extend Law Centre services including additional pro bono clinics, making available new digital tools etc
  • analysis of the potential financial impact on Law Centres and found only one third of Law Centres have cash for more than four months. 
  • a weekly newsletter which contains among other things, evaluations of tools and relevant news (i.e. Zoom’s latest security update). 
  • a Trello board which is a new venture that ‘acts like a database for various polices and procedures and evaluates various tools, which we have been recommending to Law Centres’. 

The LCN has itself moved online reasonably successfully.

  • We have a ‘whole-person check in’ on Monday and Friday (30 mins) to ensure that everyone on the team feels connected and we know what each-other are working on. We start with a “How are you” and then a more meaty “What are you working on” and then a one-word “Check-out”. We then have a staff meeting every Wednesday.
  • We’ve also started a number of communication channels between staff – one example is “words of love”, which has proven to be particularly warming on those down days!

Some members of the network have not found it so easy: ‘Our Law Centres are struggling with their IT needs. 

  • Few Law Centres have work-provided equipment that they can use at home (laptops, work mobiles) and others have been struggling to find the right office equipment (using their ironing board as a desk or taking private client calls in cupboards). This present a wide issue that we are trying to address through extra emergency funding.
  • There are others who still have paper based processes and so we are supporting them by sharing ideas that other Law Centres have been using (i.e. a shared calendar so that they can go to the office once a week on their own).’ and migrating these processes on-line.

So, all in all, law centres in England and Wales are pretty well where you would expect them in the first weeks of a pandemic that came out of nowhere. In many ways, Covid 19’s effect has been simply to magnify existing weaknesses of funding and government strategy in the advice and legal sector. Ministers have granted additional funds to Citizens Advice but the Ministry of Justice needs to develop a strategy for providing the wide range of advice on law centre’s traditional topics like immigration, debt, benefits and employment where need is mushrooming. For their part, centres will have to work out where human intervention is absolutely necessary and where they could rely on digital means of communication. Can they serve the newly impoverished users noted by Julie Bishop in a more digital way? The centres are meeting in May to review what can be done. If they looked to the US, the specific questions would be whether they could develop a similar range of self assembly documents for the digitally competent or whether agencies could combine on agreed pathways through standard problems of the kind that has proved a spine for US pro bono immigration services. But all these possibilities will require some recognition of the value of legal advice by government and attendant finance. The 2012 cuts had already proved a disaster: Covid 19 just makes them worse. Law centre clients are the canaries in the mine that tell us it is time to respond to need.

Picture from Pixaabay

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