How did you get involved in the advice world?
I cut my teeth very young. I was just 18 when I started work at the Citizens Advice Bureau in Darlington, County Durham. It was 1998. I had been a client and thought that the person supporting me needed a hand. I began as a volunteer and then started a career in general advice, ultimately specialising in welfare rights.
How did that work out?
It was at the time when legal aid franchising was being piloted in some parts of the Citizens Advice Service. The early design of these somewhat undermined what people needed and I was unhappy with the resulting shift in culture. Things like the incomprehensible client care letter undermined the relationship with clients. So, I moved to outreach. I did a few years for Citizens Advice in regeneration projects and in a joint one with [the mental health charity] MIND in a psychiatric ward of a hospital.
And from there?
I gradually got more interested in the technicalities of law. I took on an external law degree though Birkbeck College at the University of London. That was part time for four years. To fund this, I worked in advice centres in Lambeth and Brixton in south London. I also began working for a youth advice project in Redbridge.
In my final undergraduate year, I got a mini pupillage at Doughty Street [a well-known human rights set of barristers]. That brought me to a moment of decision whether to pursue a career at the Bar or take a different path and I determined not to continue with the Bar course. I was a mum by then which made it difficult, in any event. I became interested in the politics of law and felt that the Bar did not deal with the scale of legal need with which I was concerned.
So what did you do?
I started a part-time PhD but then halted because I had to keep on working and I had second child. I also started teaching undergraduate law. In 2011, I went back to my doctorate. I had initially been interested in looking at advice needs and then shifted into much bigger questions of access to justice through critical legal theory. My work became profoundly historical and theoretical. I eventually completed my Doctorate on the philosophy of Law under the title of Educating for Justice.
Didn’t you move to the Advice Services Alliance?
Yes. I was network development manager from 2009. It fitted my interest in legal education and community development. Our role was to take forward the recommendations of a Task Force led by Professor Hazel Genn that had published a report on Public Legal Education and Support, which gave the idea some prominence. We addressed issues like the lack of coordination in the field and evaluation; as well the building up of the case for public legal education.. We ran pilot projects, undertook research and convened some international conferences. We had three years before the government changed and funding for the network came to an end.
How did Law for Life come about?
There was clear evidence of growing need and we had built momentum through the network. A small steering group decided to set up a PLE organisation, Law for Life. It was very much indebted to the energy and support of Sir Henry Brooke [an influential retired judge]. We organised a fundraiser and started up just with private donations – a considerable amount from Sir Henry himself. We were incorporated in 2011 with two co-founders.
I initially led on policy and programmes. We had already grown relationships with PLE practitioners across the UK and elsewhere. [Canadian pioneer] Lois Gander had came over to speak. We had links with Open Society Foundations and [US-based legal empowerment organisation] Namati. I went to China with the British Council. We had quite a flourishing set of international relationships. That became difficult to keep up with the growing domestic need in England and Wales during the period of Government austerity.
How did Law for Life come to be responsible for Advicenow?
In 2013, Law for Life offered to take on Advicenow after the Legal Services Commission was disbanded and withdrew its funding. Merging our services provided a holistic model, incorporating community education and digital legal information. There was no clear line of funding initially but we had received development funding from a couple of foundations – Esmee Fairbairn and Barings – which gave us room to grow. Not long after, under the Coalition Government a national Litigant in Person Support Strategy was formed, that provided crucial support to continue to deliver the Advicenow service with our Strategy partners, RCJ Advice, LawWorks and Support Through Court.
The early provenance of Advicenow was to help consolidate and bring together a broad and thriving information base about rights and law produced by huge range of providers. Though much of it is excellent, the public were still struggling to find the best available legal information, or to be able to tell if it is uptodate, accurate or even in the jurisdiction in which they live. There was a need to curate the best sources of legal information in one place. Advicenow quality checks each item of information on a rolling review across 350 categories of law.
How is it different from citizensadvice, the national information system of the Citizens Advice Service?
Citizens Advice digital information comes from a different place. It has become more outfacing and now serves a huge number of users but it began as an internal information system for its volunteers. The key thing about Advicenow is that it is a curated sort of ‘Legal Google’, which means we don’t duplicate what is already being done well by other service like Citizen Advice or Shelter. We have a specific role in the justice space which is to help people find the best information and in doing so we monitor gaps in the information landscape, and fill them with our own multimedia resources. We know there are still enormous gaps for public legal information – particularly in areas where the law changes quickly and legal aid has diminished like family and immigration. Today the legal changes arising out of Covid-19 present huge difficulties in ensuring individuals understand the law.
Annually, we have around 2.2m page views and a user count of 1.2m. We know from surveys that users are predominantly from low income households, and around half of them contain someone with a disability. We specialise in developing content for users with the understanding that they are unlikely to able to secure a lawyer and may struggle to see and advisor too. Litigants in person have particular needs. We ask ourselves about the skills and knowledge that people are going to need, and the way in which confidence impacts on their capacity to take action in their situation. They may be facing a more powerful party, so reassurance and confidence building are key – we can do that with a range of media, including films and videos, podcast or step-by-step guides.
How is Advicenow developing?
Demand for personalisation is a big issue for us. We are becoming more interactive by delivering document automation tools for example. We are also expanding into new areas of provision. We have launched an ecommerce platform selling a range of products where users are able to afford small amounts. This helps us to underwrite the information gaps and assistance that needs to be freely available but that no-one is funding. We will also begin testing sales of interactive tools.
Our free tools operate in the welfare benefits space with a focus on people who need to challenge a decision about their Personal Independence Payments or Disability Living Allowance. Our tools receive over 150,000 page views every year and produced almost 17,000 personalised review letters. The tool takes people through each descriptor and encourages them to address the characteristics that need to be considered for a successful review of their decision. We get good feedback about successful review and appeals, but we want to understand more about their impact. We recently received additional funding from the Ministry Justice that will help us conduct more rigorous research into the effectiveness of our resources.
Haven’t you set up a joint project with family lawyers group Resolution?
Yes. This is about unbundling family law services given that most people cannot afford traditional end to end help from a lawyer. Our partnership with Resolution has allowed us to develop an initiative which launched in pilot form just before Covid-19. This allows users of our self-help legal guides in complex areas of financial and children’s arrangements to secure affordable fixed-fee appointments at specific points in their justice journey. The idea is to provide a seamless service that navigates between our help and our panel of Resolution family lawyers, working remotely via telephone, FaceTime, Skype and What’s App. At the end of the pilot we hope to roll out the service having established the most important ‘pain points’ for users in the legal process and the right price point for fixed fee expert help to ensure the service can be sustained and that lawyers are able to deliver an effective service to their clients.
How has COVID affected your education work?
We have gone online for now. We deliver programmes in areas of law where the need is substantial and lawyers are particularly hard to find, and that are often being tackled by front line services and community groups without any legal training. We work by building up the skills and knowledge of trusted intermediaries around priority areas of law through webinars, films and information support. Our largest programmes are currently focused on housing and homelessness prevention. The curriculum moves through basic housing law around evictions, disrepair and Local Authority duties for people at risk of homelessness, through to challenging systemic issues. So for example, we cover Judicial Review, how to work with Councillors and capacity building for campaigns. Participants include women’s groups, healthcare providers, NHS link workers, refugee groups and so on. We are trying to build bridges to the most excluded communities.
How big are you now?
We have a total of eight staff and a pool of five associates who regularly work on our programmes. We outsource some functions like finance. Our turnover is just under £4000,00.
How do you see the future?
There is so much more that we can be doing through technology, but with a commitment to inclusive technological design. We need to start asking questions about the levels of legal capability that people have; their understanding and capacity to use justice processes. And we also need to focus on digital design that understand the barriers people face with technology as such. Those questions lead to issues about how digital technology can be designed both to extend reach but also to encompass substantive areas of justice process which are currently underserved. The key question includes, but goes beyond, accessibility of the formal justice system. It is also about how public understanding of the law informs or hinders democratic participation. The public role in shaping our system must be more than a question of user satisfaction. The domestic programme of reform is not considering this.
I have always been fascinated about where public understanding of law sits in the context of how governance is shaped by any given population. That includes understanding how the law can serve (or hinder) the ability to hold the state and more powerful actors to account. We are at a moment where that needs to be examined.
Technologies have enormous potential to increase democratic participation but they also potentially deeply undermine our democratic systems. The direction down which legal technologies in particular go is undoubtedly subject to the vicissitudes of political commitment and the finance that follows. I fear there is danger it will all go in wrong direction. But I hope that a public that is better educated in the workings of the legal system can bring something to the debate about how to rule democratically.