Covid 19, technology and the access to justice sector: the first phase – remote working

Talk to anyone around the world in every field of legal services. They will agree that Covid-19 has transformed the way in which they work and that technology has been crucial – just as it has in every other sector of the economy. Staff are working differently; services are being reconfigured; organisations are adapting with unprecedented speed.

Two phases

Posts on this blog since the pandemic hit around the globe have covered the immediate reactions of English and Welsh courts, Victoria’s legal aid authority, US ‘Biglaw’,  Ontario’s community legal clinics and English and Welsh community law centres. There are more in the can. But, for this post and the next, let’s analyse what is happening and, more importantly, try to predict some of the options – and, yes, even possible opportunities – for the future.

This approach has been broken into two parts. The first phase – covered in this post – is the implementation of internal systems for staff to operate remotely. Agencies all round the world had to set up arrangements for this rapidly in March and April as the pandemic rolled through. They were better or worse prepared for this depending on their existing implementation of the appropriate technology. So, this is a process that begins with charting the past. How did agencies cope? But it also includes speculation on the future. How might this process of remote working develop? 

The second phase is more completely speculative. It involves facing up to the issue of whether agencies will permanently change their ways of working to adapt to the pandemic. This depends, in part, on how long you see Covid19 impacting on society. The emerging view seems to be that it will linger for some time.  Dr Matthias Schmidt, an expert involved in treating some of the early UK cases, thinks that ‘”we will [not] be able to eradicate this disease over the next year or two years. We have to live with it. So our hospital is making plans to live with this for the next year to two years and therefore everybody else has to do that.’ 

If coronavirus is going to be with us for this sort of length of time, then agencies may have, like everyone else, to work out ways of adapting in terms of offering services over the next two years that are not as dependent as they once were on face-to-face contact, on clients coming to an office location. The potential consequences and possible avenues of response will be considered in a second post,  planned for publication next week.

The implementation of remote working: phase one

The immediate lockdowns in March and April required agencies to establish some form of digital presence – if only, at the most basic level, by using personal mobile phones and laptops. But, to operate properly a bit more infrastructure is required – such as systems to allow communications for staff working remotely; ensuring that public phone numbers could continue to be answered (usually through voip or voice over the internet protocol); using online case management systems and so on. 

The crisis struck the whole of the legal sector. Predictably, the large commercial, ‘Biglaw’, firms found the immediate transition the easiest. They often had the systems already in place: ‘One [large US corporate] firm tested its work at home arrangements on Friday and was able to announce that it was shutting down its office on Monday. Another decided on remote working on Wednesday and was ready with ‘full remote’ on Friday.’ In the legal aid sector, Victoria Legal Aid, a large and well-organised provider, was more or less equally ready: ‘In the last few years, VLA has upgraded its technology; moved to Microsoft Office 365 including Skype for Business telephony given everyone a tablet; and largely shifted to the cloud. So, it was well placed for the move to remote working.’

Many smaller providers were also ready – particularly when their technical infrastructure was centrally provided. The director of Hamilton Community Legal Clinic in Ontario reported early on in the pandemic: ‘‘Everyone is set up to work from home. Most people do so.’ Systems retained wrinkles, often relating to the mundane need physically to pick up post. Systems and compromises evolved and the lockdowns were of varying intensity over the world: “My co-director and I go in alternately once a day. We still get mail. We get deliveries. We need to troubleshoot. Caseworkers only come into the office as an exception when something requires them to do so. Tribunals still use faxes so often staff need to come in to use the fax machine.”’

Some smaller advice centres dependent on their own resources found more difficulty, The Law Centres Network for England and Wales reported early on ‘‘Our Law Centres are struggling with their IT needs. Few Law Centres have work-provided equipment that they can use at home (laptops, work mobiles) and others have been struggling to find the right office equipment (using their ironing board as a desk or taking private client calls in cupboards). This present a wide issue that we are trying to address through extra emergency funding.’ That identifies a continuing problem for low paid staff – which many advice and law centre sector employees will be – who are living in constrained accommodation.

Nevertheless, the transition to remote working by staff seems to have largely been completed at the technological level. Workarounds have evolved for deficiencies – such as the use by clients to photograph documents rather than copy them if they have a mobile phone but no laptop or PC. All this has been critically dependent on technology but has not involved any great level of innovation. For the most part, organisations had at least some groundwork in place and just stepped up a gear. Even those with little originally in place in March have adapted by now because their users have been unable or unwilling to attend offices. Courts and tribunals have often shut or shifted largely to remote working. The cost of technological upgrading may, however, add significantly to the financial pressures on the smallest community-based operations.

Biglaw reported early on that the shift was much more to video than audio: ‘“The default is now to jump on a video call”’. And experience seems to suggest that video works better than audio in remote court hearings. We will return to the issue of video and the ‘zoomboom’ later. But it may be that cost and lack of equipment mean that the phone is still preferred by many clients on low incomes. You would predict that agencies that can get funding for it would follow the example of those agencies – Pro Bono Ontario or Legal Aid BC are just two examples – which are able to provide toll-free numbers to call. You would predict much more use of email communication – with digital exclusion exaggerated by the closure of so many libraries and free wifi spots such as Starbucks. The easing of legal restrictions may, however, open up wifi to a wider group of users.

Most commentators think that the move to remote working by staff within wide swathes of the economy will likely to continue and be incorporated within the ‘new normal’. Gartner reported early this month that the number one trend in future work trends would be an ‘Increase in remote working. A recent Gartner poll showed that 48% of employees will likely work remotely at least part of the time after COVID-19 versus 30% before the pandemic.’ Many Biglaw firms are reconsidering their leases for large, city-centre, atrium-boasting headquarters. As legal aid and advice providers ponder the same process, a fresh range of issues will arise beyond the initial coping strategies. Long-term success of remote working will depend on successful systems to maintain remote mentoring and supervision as well as structures to hold together staff members who physically see each other much less. Gartner advises its commercial firms: ‘As organizations shift to more remote work operations, explore the critical competencies employees will need to collaborate digitally, and be prepared to adjust employee experience strategies. Consider whether and how to shift performance goal-setting and employee evaluations for a remote context.’

Small advice agencies will have to development management systems similar to those in larger operations and this may prove more of a challenge.

Remote working will put a strain on the central spine of an organisation’s case management system. There will be organisations which have sailed through the emergency phase but where, longer term, there will be a need to upgrade to commercial-level standard case management systems. Managers will need access to dashboards setting out progress of cases; caseworkers will need prompts for deadlines; standard documentation and procedures will have an obvious advantage; central digitally held case information will be essential. Some agencies will have this. Others may well see the advantage in developing it. Homegrown systems like AdvicePro, widely used in the UK, may need to upgrade. The same may be true of LegalServer, the US equivalent. Commercial firms like Clio may see an opportunity to extend into this market with systems that are slicker; have received more investment; and can be individualised more easily. 

Shared case management could take on a positive role in harmonising approaches within the access to justice system. reported on an immigration project in the US where ‘One provision used quite commonly by immigration projects is Citizenshipworks … This allows users to build their own application for citizenship using tools which they can access directly access from the net or which can be ‘white labelled’ and used by other organisations. The application can then be used as a base for advice along the way by those that need it.’  You can see potentially very interesting ways in which this sort of individually tailored – but basically shared platform – could be developed within a community of different providers which was sufficiently co-operative.

The topic of video deserves consideration in itself. Video is currently identified with zoom as vacuum cleaners with hoover. Zoom’s use apparently soared 30-fold in April alone. There have, of course, been widespread worries about its privacy, though – to be fair – the company has sought to address these. There are alternatives – Microsoft Teams or Facebook, for example. Anyway, the ‘zoomboom’ needs consideration. Agencies are using video to keep in touch internally. Video can clearly compensate for lack of personal contact. There is, after all,  even a zoom video dating scene with Cosmopolitan reporting that many people think it is better.

Zoom clearly has potential in terms of training. Harvard Law School, after all, is going online next semester. In the UK and for advisers, the National Association of Welfare Rights Advisers has found going online for its training sessions and Terry Stokes of rightsnet reports,’A recent conference by them attracted almost 500 attendees on Zoom when they would usually get less than 100. NAWRA made attendance free but encouraged people to become members and pay an annual fee.’ The association also uses zoom conferences, via the ever-present Eventbrite booking mechanism, to discuss policy – holding a ‘NAWRA online’ presentation of ‘What does the future of advice service delivery look like’ on 30 July. 

Technology is being used to increase the support to networks in the field. rightsnet, at the centre of digital welfare rights support in the UK, has a page on its website detailing its Covid19 resources. In the US, the Self-Represented Litigants Network has used regular video calls to keep members of its network in touch. Ease of recording allows webinars to be put on the net for wider distribution – as BC’s People’s Law School has done in an upload of a video of a discussion on strategies for public legal information (PLE) to its website. Commercial firms are homing on video as a marketing tool with one appreciation identifying no less than 35 ‘creative and fun ways’ to use zoom meetings for marketing. It would be an interesting exercise to see if we could meet the same challenge for access to justice.

So, technology has played a major role in helping agencies adapt internally to the pressures of Covid 19. There seem many lessons to be learnt from shared experience around the world. In the next part of this examination, we will look – a bit more speculatively – at technology’s potential impact on the actual delivery of services to users.

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