The Legal Aid Authority and the Virus: the experience of Victoria Legal Aid

Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) is responsible for the provision of legal aid throughout its state. I will admit to a personal bias in its favour because when I first visited its Melbourne headquarters in 1991, the staff were incredibly open and proud of what they were doing –  even offering me the director’s temporarily vacant office and his secretary for a week. VLA’s latest annual report seems to indicate that, for all the vicissitudes of time, it remains what I took it at the time to be* – a well-run provider of a mixed model of service delivery involving salaried lawyers, private practitioners and community legal centres that deliver advice, information, advocacy, education and law reform. It, thus, provides an interesting place to look at a legal aid authority’s response to Covid 19 and to start to tease out the longer-term opportunities.

In terms of context, Victoria is Australia’s second most populous state. It has about the same land area as Great Britain with a population a bit bigger than Scotland (6.6m to 5.3m). Most people live in the south of the state around Melbourne (which accounts for around 30 per cent of all VLA’s clients). VLA’s overall budget is around $Aus230m ($US150m, £123m or €138m). In terms of the volume of its work, in 2018-9, it helped 100,061 clients; made 45,000 grants of legal assistance and provided 86,000 in-house duty lawyer services; responded to 140,224 requests for help by phone, chat or in-person and funded 48 community legal centres. VLA provides information and advice in 23 languages.

Victoria is in Covid 19 lockdown with restrictions beginning to ease in much the same way as the UK. Cases began to rise sharply towards the end of March; it has had a total of 1602 (the vast majority of which are in Melbourne); and has an enviable capacity to track and trace, with around 400,000 tests undertaken.  Almost half the cases have been contracted as the result of travel overseas. There have sadly been 19 deaths to date. Courts have responded in much the same way as England and Wales with, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, ‘Only the most urgent cases are being heard — such as bail applications and plea hearings, as well as cases involving those in custody, or people making family violence applications. Some lawyers and some prisoners or remandees are still attending court, but only if physical distancing can be achieved.’ Unavoidable hearings have been hastily shifted to video: ‘At the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court, the number of videolink hearings has doubled to a recent peak of 244 a day, as a result of the pandemic.’ 

The Executive Director of the Victoria Law Foundation interviewed various members of VLA’s staff about the impact of Covid 19 on their work in a recent podcast. The pattern seems consistent with experience elsewhere. There was a spike in family problems over contact with children – some caused by the closure of government contact centres; an influx of calls about court hearings and the need to attend; an initial decrease in family violence calls but a suspicion of a concealed rise in cases; and an increase in advice on tenancy and housing matters (Victoria has a relatively high rental sector). There has been some rushed development by VLA in response – most notably of a facility to upload documents from a mobile phone. Miles Brown, VLA’s managing lawyer, Economic and Social Rights, pointed to a number of other important issues. There was ‘a broader spectrum of clients’ in need of advice, particularly in relation to eviction. And Covid 19 was pointing out the need for ‘co-ordination within the sector with particular organisations getting surges’ that would benefit from being spread out over organisations. 

Conveniently, the Victorian government completed a review of access to justice in 2016 that set a framework for the development of digital for the VLA.  It recommended that ‘Victoria Legal Aid [be] the primary entry point for information about legal issues for the Victorian community … ‘and wanted to make ‘better use of technology’. This represented a bit of a victory for reforms called for by the VLA to achieve ‘Bigger and better access to Legal Help’s online and telephone services as the main entry point to the legal assistance sector’.

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. Martin Edwards, VLA’s Chief Information Officer, says, ’We were fortunate in our flexibility. We wanted people to work in shared places. Staff should be able to move around. The benefit was that people knew what to do. As long as they had an internet connection, they could work remotely and have access to all our ICT facilities.’ There remain issues to sort out. There is a heavy reliance still on paper and VLA had to develop a strategy to work more digitally both internally and with partners like the police and courts. Some implementation was fast-tracked: ‘We enacted a piece of planning that we had done already that allowed us to scan and distribute incoming mail. We did that quickly. All mail is now directed to the central office and distributed electronically. As they say, you never want to waste a good crisis.’

Jon Cina, VLA’s Associate Director, Access and Equity, highlights the important changes that they had already made to their  Legal Help phoneline and webchat service. ‘We had hired people from outside the legal sector to help us understand all the data we had about demand and our services responses. That systems approach was essential to modernising the helpline and increasing the impact of our limited resources. We had already explored working from home and in normal times about a third of the 60 staff do some of their shifts from home . That made it much less daunting operationally and culturally for everyone to start working remotely in mid-March. Over a weekend we made sure everyone had their tablets and passwords and confirmed the helpline’s cloud software could take the load and then reopened the service just an hour later than usual on the Monday.. Nearly three months into running a helpline remotely from 60 different homes, the team is more productive, with many keen not to return to fully working in the office whenever that becomes possible..’. VLA is working on a comprehensive case management system. At the moment, capacity is ‘in pockets’, focused in particular on criminal and family law. Remote working is accelerating progress and a full system is hoped for in three or four months. Already work has been done on an intake and triage element which will allow VLA to track every contact and interaction, and for our clients to send us documents that we can’t currently see on the phone or webchat. It’s important to us that the people who come to VLA for help only need to tell their story once. This is ‘bringing together five or six processes in one screen which is easy to use’. There is a very real practical payoff in the offing: ‘We reckon we can save several minutes on most of the calls we answer”.

And to come is a redevelopment of VLA’s website. ‘Our key vision is moving from thousands of pieces of separate information. We want a content strategy which will help clients to find a way through to their answer. Rather than separate pages, we will have chunks that combine information that is currently separate.’ The ambition is big: ‘We have got to raise our game to match commercial organisations. If I go to a commercial website, it gets to know me quite quickly and remembers things about me. And we don’t make enough of the collective information that we have. Our offer of legal help should be providing a canary in the coalmine that alerts us to spot trends.’ Echoing Miles Brown in the podcast, he says, ‘We also need to act as a sector not just as an agency on our own.’

More than any specific plan is a general willingness to move forward. Jon Cina said ‘We hope that one of the consequences of what’s been possible in responding to COVID-19 will be a bolder appetite for experimenting and an increased tolerance for risk. I wonder if we can use things like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger to deliver services. That is where our clients already are. It’s important too that justice sector agencies think about the resilience of the whole system, identifying which services are the most critical for our shared clients and planning creatively how to maintain them in the face of overwhelming events like bushfires and pandemics. For example, organisations could temporarily pool staff and technology to preserve minimum public access to vital assistance. And Martin Edwards agreed’ ‘My hope is that we can learn from experience, be a bit braver and accepting, I back up Jon’s point about thinking as a system. We don’t do enough of that and it holds Victoria back.’ It seems to me as if the optimistic assessment of three decades ago is still justified.

* See Chapter 10, Legal Action Group A Strategy for Justice, 1992.

Feature picture of Melbourne by Jonny Joka on Pixabay.

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