Technology: a community law centre steps up to the plate

Miranda Grell, Development Officer, Hackney Community Law Centre, London.

At Hackney Community Law Centre (HCLC), we have decided to step up our efforts to make better use of technology. The reasons we have done so are threefold. Firstly, the world is changing and digital forms of communication such as smartphones and Skype have become the ‘new normal’ for most people, including those who approach our Centre for help. Secondly, we believe that better use of technology will help HCLC become more efficient and particularly assist our hard-pressed receptionists to respond to an ever-growing deluge of enquiries at the door and on the phones. Thirdly, if used correctly, new technology will increase HCLC’s efficiency and free up our solicitors’ and caseworkers’ ‘face-time’, allowing them to deal with more of the most difficult cases.

All of this is ‘motherhood and apple pie’ to us but we know that many of our colleagues in the legal and advice sectors are sceptical. However, the perilous financial climate HCLC finds itself operating in – particularly since the introduction of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012 – has led us to conclude that we don’t have the luxury of rejecting solutions that will help us to help our clients, just because those solutions may be unfamiliar to us as ‘legal’ rather than ‘digital’ experts.

Over the last year, HCLC has thrown itself head first into a number of exciting pilot partnerships with tech and ‘legal disruption’ enthusiasts. Those collaborations are now starting to bear fruit.

Online advice surgeries

One of the first digital advice pilots in which HCLC participated was a project to provide our clients with legal advice online. Working with legal consultant Jonathan Maskew, HCLC converted our weekly office-based employment-law sessions into virtual advice appointments.  The clients who attended HCLC’s offices received pro bono legal advice from an employment barrister sitting in front of a computer in his own Chambers. The technology was similar to Skype but was built specifically with legal advice in mind. The designers had therefore taken into account the critical need for the connection to be secure. There was also the facility to enable both clients and counsel to upload documents onto the screen in real time. Client feedback following the pilot appointments was extremely positive. One wrote that the 30 minutes in which she was advised by the pilot’s barrister was the best 30 minutes’ worth of advice she’d had in two years. Time and no money well spent.

Law for Good Hackathon

Another of HCLC’s 2015/16 digital initiatives was partnering with Legal Geek, the UK’s largest tech community of groups of lawyers, entrepreneurs, techies and industry experts working to “disrupt” the traditional legal industry. Legal Geek helped HCLC to stage Europe’s first ever Law Tech Hackathon. At Shoreditch’s Google Campus, over the course of 24 hours spanning 6pm on Friday the 18th of March to 6pm on Saturday the 19th of March 2016, the hackathon saw more than 50 UK based ‘coders’, and also coders who flew in from as far as Romania, Gibraltar and the USA, split into 10 teams to conceive, build, and pitch technical solutions to improve the delivery of and access to HCLC’s legal services.

The judges awarded Fresh Innovate – a team made up of lawyers and tech experts from law firm Freshfields – first prize for their design of an entire new HCLC portal management system. Fresh Innovate’s interactive website ‘triaged’ in seven languages to help provide a solution to legal problems in housing, welfare and benefits, immigration, and employment. The aim was that visitors would be able to contact HCLC after ‘opening a case’ online from a menu of options relating to their specific problem. You can watch Fresh Innovate’s winning pitch to the hackathon’s judges HERE.

Digital Insights Report and Summit

As well as testing practical digital methods of delivering advice, we also felt it was important that HCLC began to play a greater role in influencing broader strategic and policy discussions about digital advice taking place in the legal and third sectors. We had already begun developing some ideas locally with sister advice agencies, such as the Citizens Advice Bureau, as part of the 2013 – 2015 Big Lottery Advice Services Transition Fund (ASTF) project, which HCLC led in Hackney.  Last month, HCLC built on that ASTF work by publishing a report into the subject and holding a ‘Digital Advice Summit’, which brought together Hackney advice providers, senior politicians and officials from the local authority; officers from The Big Lottery Fund, The London Legal Support Trust, The Legal Education Foundation; solicitors from the private and third sectors and senior clerks from barristers’ chambers. Following the summit, the conversations HCLC started locally are continuing formally at the regional and national levels.

Based on HCLC’s experience so far, we have found that beginning to make better use of technology is not an onerous task for a Law Centre. The technology is there and the tech world is keen to work with us. In HCLC’s view, it is time for our sector to turn the terrible challenges we face into exciting opportunities for long overdue and desperately needed innovation.

Leave a Reply