Martha de la Roche and the Litigants in Person Network – ‘the big gap is the need for a more strategic and systemic focus on bringing together people on common issues’.

How did you get started in the legal field?

I qualified with a law degree from Queen Mary University, London in 2008. At the time, I shared the hopes and dreams of many of my co-students. I originally wanted to be a human rights barrister but I quickly realised that was a very different undertaking from what was presented in popular culture! While at Queen Mary, I had worked in its law clinic. I realised that this was the part of my university experience which I actually valued the most. I decided to look at whether there was anything in legal charity sector and I started an internship with the Access to Justice Foundation (ATJF). Ruth Daniel had started as the first chief executive just before me. So I was in at the beginning of the new organisation. 

I moved from ATJF to support the creation of the new advice service in the London Borough of Ealing. This was at the time of transition advice funding, set up to compensate for some of the legal aid cuts to the not for profit sector. At that time, Ealing didn’t have a Citizens Advice bureau or a law centre. I started as the manager for a new service which became Ealing Advice. Subsequently, services in Ealing were hugely improved by the founding of a law centre.

From Ealing, I moved to LawWorks [the Solicitors Pro Bono Group] to support the legal clinics network, most of which are university based. I then returned to ATJF to cover during Ruth’s absence on maternity leave, and later after her return, support the network of Legal Support Trusts with their fundraising activities. 

I moved sectors for a bit after that and went to the Animal Welfare Foundation which, despite the obvious differences, shared a number of similarities with my previous role; it was a sector wide initiative dealing with specialist professionals (though I found vets much more conservative and averse to change). Finally, I moved back again, technically at least, to ATJF, but actually the LIP Network. 

What drew you to the LIP Network?

There were a lot of familiar faces. And my passion is not so much the delivery of services to users, it is in supporting the sector, being in a funder or network organisation. 

The LiP Network is semi-autonomous. It was originally built on a request from the Civil Justice Council annual access to justice forum in 2015. This proposed a continuing forum for updating information through the year rather than just at one annual meeting. The Legal  Education Foundation provided some scoping money which provided a brief for a website platform to hold resources and allow discussion, sharing and chatting by members of network. 

One of the strengths of the network has been that its membership is very varied. It is not just advice providers. We aim to cover the full spectrum of organisations that support people through resolving their legal problems. We include people in the courts themselves. We have quite a lot of judiciary as well as HMCTS staff who are interacting with individuals. We go elsewhere as well. A lot of our work focuses on other organisations where litigants might seek help like community centres, grassroots organisations, and so on. We try to work with the locality where people are likely to flag their issues – often several steps up the line from going to somewhere like Citizens Advice for advice.

That sounds very similar to the Self-Represented Litigants Network in the US.

That is because we are based on it. Our operational model is based on theirs and we maintain links with them. We went over to see them before we started.  We have the same small core team. We focus on using members’ experience. We have similar work streams focusing on key issues. We bring people together.  We have maintained links with Canadian equivalent as well. It is Interesting to see the slightly different focus here from North America. We had a bit of difficult time initially finding our way. The US and Canada have been more familiar with self-represented litigants for longer.

We have been very fortunate to have as another international influence. There is a rich tapestry of other projects being supported in the US. We really need to look into that more. With the continued lack of investment in legal aid we seem to be heading to a more US situation with large numbers of litigants in person. The court digital reform programme won’t act as the great equaliser that we might once have hoped. There will need to be a lot of cleaning up to be done when it is finished. I see little sign of government taking that role. The initiative is going to have come from us. 

How are you funded?

At the moment, we are funded by a private law foundation, the Stewart’s Foundation linked to the Stewart’s law firm and the National Pro Bono Centre. This has given us a couple of years security. 

This slightly more independent funding stream has prompted us to look at how we define and invest in our own strategic goals and operation. We are in the process of setting up a steering group with representatives from the sector. But we have gone to some lengths to not to set up yet another entirely new organisation. 

What do you see the network as having achieved?

I have been there just over two years and the development in that time has been really interesting. When I started working in the field, I was really dubious about whether the sector was ready to work together, for a long time the fight for funding had caused everyone to be a bit wary of each other. But I noticed when I came back to ATJF I noticed a marked shift in the attitude towards working together;  people were a lot more willing to come together, to share, and not be so protective of their own interests. 

We were originally set up to be entirely responsive to what people said they needed. This allowed us to prove our efficacy and increasingly we’ve seen people starting to rely on the work we are doing. But the other side of being so responsive to others is that it can be difficult to meet the quickly developing needs of a broad range of stakeholders. We realise that we are not best placed to meet that demand ourselves – not only are we a small team with restricted resources but there are other people in the sector who do meet these needs – what we can do is highlight their work and signpost others to it.

But the big gap is the need for a more strategic and systemic focus on bringing together people on common issues.  We face big problems which no one person or organisation has an answer. There is a lot of work to be done and that is where we think we can make the most difference. We can help identify the issues which are common to everyone. 

Where do we go now?

Despite the terrible circumstances I think Covid 19 going someway to helping us identify those common issues and presenting us with opportunities for culture change. We are seeing much more willingness to try things and see if they work; shorter turn arounds; a willingness to make mistakes and learn. Previously, there was much more of a feeling that something had to work first time. Funding structures were not really supporting initiatives which depend on try and test. It is good to see that change. There seems to be much more flexibility. 

. A growing number of people are interested in and in contact with us about technological innovation. About a year and a half ago, there was a drive to adopt technology mainly because of the availability of funding. People felt the need to get a project ready quickly and projects were developed in silos. We are seeing a shift in thinking. People are coming together much earlier in the process but there still needs to be a lot more of a focus on the sharing of learnings, more accountability. 

In terms of service delivery, there are, of course, restrictions on who can access and interact with technology but what it does provide is an alternative option for those who can use it including  removing geographical barriers for some types of services. There are potentially some very interesting opportunities but e need more data on who is accessing and not accessing services in order to get a better picture of how changing services are affecting users. I am not sure we have that at the moment.

As far as the Network goes, I am really keen to keep us small and streamlined, maintaining leadership from the sector itself but focusing it, where we can, on developing communal resources which are community owned. The role of network is facilitative, convening and bringing people together to work on the collective good.  We are trying to pull together cross-sector groups, and our approach has been to drive things organically.

What did you make of the Nesta/SRA legal access challenge?

I think they found the right winners in FLOWS and the Mencap chatbot but I think it’s really important to note these projects had already been in development for a year and a half. It was fantastic that there was new investment but for me it demonstrated that successful tech projects require sustained long term funding and that small amounts of money won’t really result in huge change. 

How do we move forward?

To bring the sector along with us, its members need to have the opportunity to be involved. Key for me is some kind of a framework – a design framework or whatever – that holds all this together and provides a co-ordinating infrastructure. We need to give an opportunity for the sector to skill up and not just have things be done to it, and investment should be directly to the sector rather than in a single project which tries to answer all the questions. I have been disparaging about the prevailing scattergun approach in the past but it has produced a whole host of people interested in developing this area. We can encourage those leaders and that development.

There are a variety of initiatives through which we could find out what works. Document self-assembly is one promising line to pursue. I am still slightly triggered by chatbots but there are amazing initiatives in the commercial sector and some people positively don’t want to talk or type to a human being. This is a key issue we have to bear in mind. Some people don’t want to resolve problems in the old way. For some people it may be more beneficial to have access to systems that allow them to find solutions to their problems without the need of a lawyer and that means support for the theory of legal empowerment.

Our ultimate goal has to be that people are able to resolve their legal issues, but in order to fully understand what that means we need to know the way in which users are accessing and interacting with services and to what extent their needs are met.

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