This is an initial note on how Justice Connect has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the first of what will be a series of articles on agencies’ response around the world intended to inform and inspire people engaged in the same processes but in different jurisdictions.
At Justice Connect, as the impacts of COVID-19 ripple across Australia, we, like many legal organisations, are working to continue providing our business-as-usual services while responding rapidly to emerging legal needs.
We’re speaking daily to our sector peers and working hard to deliver valuable services and a coordinated response with the needs of people looking for help front and centre.
We have noticed a very significant spike in traffic to our website over the last three days as we have entered a tighter lock-down period, in particular in relation to tenancy issues.
We believe that this reflects more people with legal problems, but is also linked to less availability of legal services with in-person legal clinics unable to run and some phone-centres unable to operate with a remote workforce.
While Australia is in a lock-down period, our staff and pro bono lawyers in our network are working from home. We are hopeful that our organisation’s infrastructure and online avenues will equip us to continue to assist those that had legal problems prior to COVID-19, as well as meet the increasing demand for services.
Our online intake and referral tool, our cloud-based case management system, VOIP phone service and our Pro Bono Portal matter distribution system are helping to support service continuity with a remote workforce.
While ensuring continuity of existing services, we are preparing specific, tailored services that respond to emerging issues.
We have this week launched a new online legal clinic – Justice Connect Answers. The platform aims to provide a space for people to ask discrete legal questions and receive quick, confidential legal answers from our pro bono network. We have used the same base code (Free Legal Answers) that Law Works and various US organisations have used to set up a similar clinic, provided generously by Baker Donelson.
We have also released a new self-help resources hub for individuals, with resources covering employment law issues, government exercise of emergency powers, court closures and a range of resources for tenants. We are currently adapting our Dear Landlord letter writing application to provide a tailored letter for tenants unable to pay rent as a consequence of COVID-19.
Our Not-for-profit Law Service is responding to huge needs in the community sector. We have launched a series of webinars and online resources to support community organisations grappling with legal issues as they respond to COVID-19. A webinar run on Thursday 26th sold out with 500 registrations. We are working hard to quickly provide more resources and webinars to support the sector.
We also continue to work closely with law firms. We have added a new special interest area in our Pro Bono Portal to specifically handle referrals of matters related to COVID-19. We now have over 160 law firms using our Pro Bono Portal to take on pro bono matters. Firms have indicated strong interest in helping those affected by COVID-19 and a willingness to consider assisting small businesses as well as individuals and not-for-profits.
Further information on our response to COVID-19 is available at: https://justiceconnect.org.au/covid19.
Drawing on the Bushfire Experience
In responding to the new COVID-19 crisis, we are able to leverage some of the work and collaboration that was undertaken to respond to bushfire crises only months earlier.
Cross-sector collaborations were put in place aiming to ensure that people and organisations needing legal assistance experienced smooth pathways to help.
The COVID-19 crisis raises new issues and requires a different service response compared to the bushfire response due to limitations on face-to-face service provision. However, the collaborations in place out of the bushfire crises and the infrastructure supporting them are proving useful in accelerating conversations about delivering a coordinated a whole-of-sector response to the emerging legal needs.
Global Pro Bono Portal Project
We have found the Pro Bono Portal to be particularly valuable in a crisis context. Matters related to the Australian bushfires have generally been picked up by a pro bono firm within 24 hours of being entered into the Portal. We are now seeing that COVID-19 matters are being picked up quickly as well.
We are currently working on a project to make our Pro Bono Portal available in jurisdictions beyond Australia alongside PILnet. We are in conversation with a number of jurisdictions about piloting this initiative. In our recent conversations we have heard that the need for the Portal is now greater than ever, with front line services and clearinghouses seeking efficient pathways to pro bono resources at scale.
You can also read more about the project here and can register interest to learn more.
Kate Fazio is Head of Innovation and Engagement at Justice Connect – an Australian legal service organisation that runs a range of specialist legal programs and brokers pro bono referrals across Australia. Justice Connect has headquarters in Victoria and NSW.
The main picture is by Alexey Hulsov via Pixabay.