LawWorks (the Solicitors Pro Bono Group), with the support of Deloitte UK, is developing a new online pro bono service to improve access to justice through technology. In an example of international co-operation, it is doing this through a product developed in the United States.
The service, complementing existing services and sources of support, aims to enable access to initial legal advice, Called ‘Free Legal Answers’ it will make it easier for lawyers to provide pro bono advice through the flexibility of an online platform, reducing the need to physically attend centres to meet clients at specific times.
LawWorks, a charity which promotes and supports pro bono by solicitors and law schools, has been granted a licence for the software for the Free Legal Answers website supported in the United States by the American Bar Association (ABA). Originally developed as an online pro bono clinic by the US firm Baker, Donelson and launched as Online Tennessee Justice in 2010, it was expanded to ABA Free Legal Answers through the ABA’s Bono and Public Service Committee. To date, 42 states are providing or committed to providing the service.
The website enables people who cannot afford to pay for legal advice to register and ask a legal question – the focus is on initial and one-off legal advice. Volunteer lawyers can preview the questions and respond at any time and from any location – they can also contact the person asking the question if further information is needed.
Deloitte UK is providing management and technical expertise to assist LawWorks in configuring and testing the website to fit the legal environment in England and Wales. This is part of Deloitte’s ‘One Million Futures’ social impact initiative, which aims to help one million people to get to where they want to be. Funding has come from the Access to Justice Foundation with a grant to fund a dedicated project administrator for the service, which will include verifying lawyers registering to take part.
The project will be supported by an advisory group with participants from firms, in-house legal teams, charities and legal advice and information providers. The aim is to launch an initial pilot later this year. The website will provide signposting to online information and resources (including eligibility for legal aid) and to other sources of legal advice. The participating lawyers will be provided with support to help identify where someone may be eligible for legal aid. All advice provided through the website will be insured.
We are excited about the potential for Free Legal Answers to provide new pro bono opportunities for lawyers willing to give their time and expertise for free, and we are consulting on how the service can best complement existing online, pro bono and free advice provision. Pro bono is not and should not be seen as an alternative to legal aid, but it can help enable people to access the timely advice they need and which they cannot afford to pay for..
The project is supported by the Law Society of England and Wales and its President, Christina Blacklaws said: ‘Free Legal Answers will help people who may not be able to visit a lawyer in person to get the legal advice they need. It also provides flexibility that will enable more solicitors to work pro bono if they wish to, as we know many do. As a LawWorks trustee, I am immensely proud of the charity’s work and of the profession’s commitment to pro bono and access to justice.”
Buck Lewis of Baker, Donelson is happy with the use that has been made of the product initially developed by his firm: ‘With the help of over 5000 volunteer attorneys, our pro bono web site has helped over 40,000 clients in the states. We could not be more delighted to make this access to justice tool available to the UK.’
Martin Barnes is the Chief Executive of LawWorks.