Pretty well all legal service organisations will have made use of video communication over the Covid period. Some have used it for community outreach work as well as internal communication between staff and external with clients. A previous post covered experience in British Columbia (where the People’s Law School started experimenting with zoom educational outreach sessions just before the pandemic hit). Another dealt with experimentation by a doctors’ surgery in East London with video sessions on housing disrepaie. Now we can add a third: the use made of zoom by Greater Manchester Law Centre.
The Centre (GMLC) has a history that is relevant to its current position. There have been law centres in and around Manchester since 1975. Since then, there have been nine in total. All but two were wiped out by 2014 as the result of cuts and contract reorganisations. As a result and as GMLC tells the story on its website, ‘a group of legal aid lawyers, trade unionists and community advice organisations came together to say that this could not go on. We declared our aim of starting a community law centre for Greater Manchester. This was to enable the people of Greater Manchester to campaign for change as well as to provide access to free and independent legal advice and representation for people who could not otherwise afford it.’
Thus, GMLC started without any established funding and as the result of a campaign. The activists involved set up events; established a membership that paid subscriptions; and finally managed to get some grant and legal aid funding. They eventually got community-based premises in the former Citizens Advice Bureau in Moss Side and then moved in 2019 into larger accommodation at a Jain Community Centre in a mixed area in Levenshulme. As a result of this background, GMLC retains a commitment to campaigning – for itself, access to justice and its clients – that is probably unique in the UK. The centre has a tradition, for example, of holding general meetings which include discussion of issues as well as dealing with the business.
Kate Bradley, the Campaigns and Communications Officer, started in mid 2020 just after Covid hit: ‘On my second day, we held a big annual general meeting on zoom. We managed to do it – but not without hiccups. The hosting person’s computer went down just before the start. But using video meant we got all sorts of people into the AGM who would not normally have been there. It was easy for those with a disability. The actress Maxine Peake, who is a patron, came. I remember it being really exciting. It demonstrated that we had a good public presence.’
Kate favours Zoom over its rivals – Skype or Microsoft Teams. The latter is not that useful if you are holding an open access meeting. Skype, she found like many of us, was a ‘bit of nightmare’ and not that easy to use. Zoom is reasonably priced and easy to teach other people to use. So zoom it has been since the beginning.
From the beginning of the lockdown, GMLC used zoom for internal team meetings. ‘Through the second half of the Covid lockdowns, we started using it for training in other organisations. For example, on benefits and how to recognise when people need appeal. We have managed sessions with over 100 delegates. It has worked really well. You don’t have to come to our building. We can get our message out very widely.’
GMLC has focused on workers or volunteers in other organisations like, for example, food banks. But it also puts the word out generally when a session is coming up through its social media accounts. So, anyone interested can come.
The subject matter has been wide and has included sessions promoted as ‘A Guide to Employment Law without Representation’: ‘The Evolution of Universal Credit Migration & Future Campaign to Claim’; ‘Barriers Facing Access to Justice including An Overview of Legal Aid’; ‘A Guide to the Court of Protection and Its Role’; ‘Access to Justice – Sources of Legal Help’; and ‘Community Care Law – Using the law to get better outcomes for clients’.
Kate has a balanced assessment of how well this has all gone. ‘I think zoom has got pros and cons. It is certainly less stressful generally for the presenter but there can be technology and accessibility issues. It is also difficult if those attending don’t like to have their video on. You can’t rely on people being engaged and, if you are presenter, you don’t know if people are there or have just gone off. It is difficult to replicate the panel format where a group of presenters contribute in a discussion. I don’t think, however, it will go away. We will integrate it into our approach but in a different way. During Covid, use of zoom was unavoidable. Now we can choose when it is the best way of communicating.’
And, finally, there is the human side. ‘I noticed as Covid went on, people began talking about losing personal contact and that is really valuable.’ So, the overall lesson looks the same as for the use of technology generally. It can be helpful but cannnot supplant the human. If you are a human, that is rather satisfactory.