Friday in London saw a presentation at Freshfields, Bruckhaus Deringer, one of the City of London’s large commercial law firms, of FLOWS, Finding Legal Options for Women Survivors. This, in many ways, represents an excellent example of some of the successful uses of technology in the access to justice field. It also, alas, raises one of the key uncertainties – sustainable funding.
FLOWS is a collaboration between two existing organisations with strong track records in their fields. Rights of Women (ROW) is an organisation which does what it says on the tin. It is a well-established and well-respected organisation providing legal advice and information on, and campaigning for, the rights of women. Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ) Advice is a similar long-standing and respectable part of the Citizens Advice network. In partnership with Freshfields, it has developed CourtNav, an online tool for completion of divorce petitions linked to pro bono lawyer support and checking.
The two organisations combined for a project resourced by the tampon tax fund – government money derived from value added tax on female sanitary products paid as an interim measure prior to its abolition. The fund was, thus, not related to the Ministry of Justice or, indeed, limited to legal assistance. It was open to ‘charitable, benevolent and philanthropic organisations from across the United Kingdom [in] one of three categories: violence against women and girls, mental health and Wellbeing, and a general programme.’ Applications had to be for more than £1m. And ‘£1,090,488 [was given] for the FLOWS project to provide online-tools to improve the capacity of front-line domestic-violence agencies in England to provide legal support to women and children’.
FLOWS has a number of different components, linked by technology and the two supporting organisations. First, the RCJ Advice FLOWS team can be contacted during office hours Monday to Friday by phone or email. The team can provide legal advice on domestic abuse matters. If the women needs a non-molestation or occupancy order the process can proceed digitally through CourtNav. This builds the appropriate form and accompanying statement. One of the practical issues that impedes national automation of accompanying orders, is the remaining local variations in practice. The form is then checked by either RCJ Advice (where a woman chooses not to access legal aid, e.g. due to a high contribution required). Where legal aid is used the woman is given the choice of five FLOWS partner solicitors – accredited domestic abuse law firms.
A second element of the project is to provide ‘legal-advice resources for front-line professionals in Women’s Refuges, Women’s Aid organisations and organisations that provide safe environments to disclose abuse: for example, local Citizens Advice services, law clinics, and court-based services’. And one part of that is an online family law discussion forum which is part of ROW’s contribution to the project.
Third, the local networks of ‘partners’ provide support for users. These include solicitors: ‘Our aim is to help women obtain access to a legal aid provider – or free legal advice if they are not eligible – and ensure each one gets the best possible legal support, at a time when they need it most.’ Other accredited domestic abuse legal aid firms are encouraged to join the FLOWS Partners. Front line organisations also play a valuable role in FLOWS. Women’s organisations, Local Citizens Advice and community groups can set up women with a CourtNav account and one of the advice workers at the presentation said that ‘the hardest thing is coaxing the information from the woman’. These partners can also provide ongoing support with housing, welfare benefits and other advice and peer support groups.
Finally, there is a FLOWS website itself which gives information; provides examples of the various forms of abuse including cases studies; and includes a post code search for support from front line organisations or legal aid partners.
The project has yet to be evaluated and we are yet to have figures on its use. It has received endorsement, however, as one of the winners of the NESTA Legal Access Challenge. It certainly makes conceptual sense and provides an example of technology being used to magnify the effect of existing services rather than disrupt them. It is designed to meet a need which has grown with the government’s general abolition of legal aid in family cases. The problem of the future, however, looms large. The FLOWS funding runs out in March next year. This is surely a project where a strategic funding body like the US’s Legal Services Corporation or even the former Legal Services Commission in England and Wales would come forward with central resources to meet a strategic need. Whether – post-election – any support will be forthcoming from whoever is the next Lord Chancellor and Minister of Justice is to be seen. If it isn’t, that would be both an indictment of the individual decision and an indicator of yet another structural failure of strategic planning and intervention.