Activists Speaking 1: Terry’s Story – Terry Stokes of rightsnet

This is the first of a series of interviews with people active in the field of the digital delivery of legal services to poor people. 

I am the CEO of Lasa. The name reflects our history. It did stand for London Advice Services Alliance but we have now moved on. We are a national organisation  best known for our service, rightsnet. This is a digital community of thousands of welfare rights advisers  supporting one another and  supported by us with up to date case and statute law. We also run other resources for those seeking and giving advice on topics including social care and universal credit as well as running the referral site, advicelocal. 

I began work in this sector as a social services volunteer after university. I became a full-time welfare rights worker on a project to delivery community information on geographically  isolated housing estates in my home town, Wigan. I ended up in a council flat with an open door to all comers. I was basically given a copy of the CPAG handbook and told to get on with it.  I ended up managing the project. In 1988, I moved to London and took a job in welfare rights unit in Wandsworth Council south London. And in 1998, I moved on to Lasa. At that time, most advice agencies did not have an internet connection but, in addition to giving technical assistance to agencies to remedy this, we developed the concept of rightsnet, which was originally limited to London but then expanded nationally.

I see technology as part of the fixture and fittings of what we do. It is all about using technology as a tool to help people. In and of itself, the technology is not terribly interesting. It is how you use it that is important. The trouble at the moment is that, overall, development is piecemeal. There is a lack of genuine oversight and strategic coherence. A lot of different things are happening without any  real sense of joining up. There are very limited sources of funding and unavoidably, there is a degree of competition for funding among agencies. 

One of the missing pieces in the jigsaw of current provision is what has been called ‘warm referral’ – helping someone to the most relevant organisation. I have been very impressed by how the Australian organisation JusticeConnect has portrayed this. I came across and really liked the presentation of its Gateway project to the 2017 Pilnet conference which I found on the net. The presentation also proclaimed the need for experiment. The last slide was a reproduction of one by US legal design expert  Margaret Hagan in which she stated ‘Lawyers and Legal People must embrace a restless imagination, and a deep, day-to-day empathy for people whose lives they affect’ and, crucially,  ‘Legal Orgs need to start scrappy, cheap, user-centred experiments of their own’. I agree.

For all that technology can help, there has to be a solid foundation of face to face or personal advice. Technology – and the next thing will be chatbots – has a role to play but there has to be a solid base of personal delivery. Users sometimes want – and need – to talk to people. Technology will not solve the lack of personal contact. Which is not at all to say that technology cannot make us more efficient.  Absolutely it can but technology will give us no ‘killer app’ or silver bullet..

The broader environment is not positive. The legal aid cuts are severely reducing cases – you can see that in areas like discrimination where the fall in numbers is massive. And, overall, people are not getting the assistance of early intervention. There is a  breakdown in the legal services eco-system. The court modernisation programme is not helping. My partner is a lawyer. Her clients in Harlesden in North West London are having to get out to Feltham near Heathrow or to Canary Wharf in Docklands for their hearings. That is causing enormous problems. Video access might help to mitigate these problems and will be important when it extends to tribunals. People will learn how to use their mobile phones to connect. There must be major possibilities. But, there are problems. The technology is not perfect. Skype for business, for example, needs improvement. To work properly, people will need trusted intermediaries to help them with tribunals. At the moment, everything is shot through the prism of cost savings to the court service. Any that there may be must be reinvested in the system.

And, within the sector, we need to look at ways of bringing together what we are doing. Perhaps we need some form of data day at the very least where we could begin some mapping of what is going on. There is a crying need for the sharing of information, co-ordination of effort and collaboration.

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