Activist Lawyers, Virtual Conferences and Setting a High Bar

The Law Centres Network (LCN) for England and Wales is spending this afternoon wrapping up its four day virtual conference on the theme of ‘activist lawyers’. There is just the final afternoon session; the Christmas Karaoke; the participative murder mysteries; the presentation of lifetime achievement awards and the ruminations of law centres’ favourite ex-minister Willy Bach to go. Let the bells ring out. This has been a fantastic success. 

The conference has, indeed, been so good that it becomes a statement in its own right. And what is says is that law centres are significant players in the delivery of legal services in England and Wales; they have access to the imagination and funds to produce a swanky conference; and that their work intersects with significant other players both national and international. The conference had time to explore both work that law centres were doing – human rights, immigration, housing, anti-racism. employment. welfare benefits, debt – as well as how they were doing them. 

My particular interest was the thread on technology (which focused on its use by centres but also covered issues around algorithmic justice). Covid 19 has, of course, operated as a significant impetus to the facilitation of remote working. And it has been an international phenomenon which was reflected in the contributions from Australia, New Zealand and the US. 

The LCN has clearly benefited enormously from funding for digital upgrading from the Legal Education Foundation* and the digital fund of the National Lottery- from which it received £500,000 ($US 675,000, €554,000) over three years in 1919. The Digital Fund is particularly interesting because of its ambitious ideas. It gives one strand of grants specifically ‘with the goal of enabling established organisations to use digital tools to take a major leap forward. In other words using a “digital as a trojan horse to bring about a much larger change”’.

This kind of transformation may, or may not, have been the intention of the LCN’s conference but it’s likely to be its effect. Video is not only a means of communication: it is also an instrument of transformation. That is partly because it makes it so easy to bring people together from around the world and to foster the collaboration that will hopefully arise from that. Video draws out the best and worst in physical conferences. A simple lineup of unrelated speakers talking on a loose theme does not work that well. This was, and always has been, one of the issues with the Civil Justice Council conference held earlier this month. The common international encounter with the Covid 19 pandemic and its consequences really helped to knit different contributions together. The LCN has set itself its own challenge simply with the success of this year. How will next year’s be better? For there can be no going back.

The digital conference was embedded within the wider digital transformation which the injection of significant funding has allowed. One of the early workshops showcased the digital work of the LCN with its members. Here was the notion of ‘law centres as a platform’ as explained by LCN’s Digital Lead Emily McLoud, where a common infrastructure brought law centres together but still allowed for individual customisation. Andrew Flett, LCN’s digital product designer, explained that there was a common transition to tools like Microsoft 365 but that aspects of provision might be customised. For example, he said, ‘some law centres might want a full client service website – others just want something which puts triage front and centre, an enquiry management tool. But there may be common services such as donations and elements of a common branding’. There were some interesting ideas about how specific tools to cover the recording of contacts – through phone, email or products like WhatsApp – could be integrated with the case management tools already in use. 

The potential to collect data was raised by Alex Charles, LCN’s IT and Digital Office. She probably does not know that back in the 1970s the Law Centres Working Group, as then it was, had ambitious plans to collect centralised data on enquirers by means of hole-punched cards collectable along knitting needles inserted at the right point. They failed because any caseworker worth their salt found them a boring bureaucratic diversion from their real work. But if this could be automated then there is the possibility of law centres filling the data gap between the excellently precise information obtained by CitizensAdvice by its casetracking of enquiries to its website and uptake on legal aid. At the moment, this is a data desert in which too many people metaphorically die of thirst and are shunned by badly integrated sources of assistance. 

The conference made it possible to have a wide geographical perspective on the impact of Covid 19 on services and on the exacerbation of existing inequalities. Experience was distressingly similar over the globe although, from New Zealand, Community Law Centres CEO Sue Moroney could talk of ‘getting back to normal’ in a way that was not quite open to the rest of us. There was consensus that remote services can work but there are problems. For example, cases take longer. ‘We are getting better,’ said one international contributor, ‘but we are not as quick when working remotely as in the office.’

Remote working crashed into law centres, as elsewhere, in March. Some were ahead of the curve. South West London Law Centres has migrated online back in 2016. Tower Hamlets had started a project of going paperless in January which ‘had begun slowly but accelerated in March’. The pandemic really showed staff the point of the exercise and the law centre was moving to Microsoft Teams to allow staff not to use their own personal phones. Northern Ireland’s law centre was planning to migrate in the spring and did so in late March and early April. Director Ursula O’Hara reported, ‘There was no break in service provision. We were working on old Office software which was no longer supported. We were taking the back up tapes home every night. There were inherent risks. We knew we had to change.’ Migration required cleansing of data to make sure it was compliant with the privacy regulations. The move had been very successful, ‘We have not looked back. It was much easier than I anticipated. We could not have continued as we were. It required a lot of training. Management team backing was important. We opted for laptops and that has been terrific. The system takes us into the future.’ In all, it was reported that 25 law centres have so far been upgraded with 531 workers now using cloud-based services. 

The next tasks for members of the LCN are presumably to round up the stragglers into the IT programme; to build the extensions to the existing programmes; but, most interestingly, to explore new ways of supporting vulnerable groups with digital. 

Peter Brown from Sheffield talked about how his centre, which is combined with a CitizensAdvice office, is exploring the use of zoom as a means of communication ‘in three strands – clients in own homes that have equipment and enough hardware; third party settings, like care homes; and those using community venues’  like a local library which was one of the partners in the experiment. They were anticipating a demand rise of 30 per cent in the next few months with most physical premises not safe to open. This has not yet gone live but it is clearly an experiment to watch if it progresses. Tom Norman from Barnado’s talked of a project they had begun in 2017 using WhatsApp as a favoured means of keeping in touch with their users. This allowed different channels of communication and was encrypted, a major advantage in  their work. Teresa Waldron of Derbyshire law Centres reported that she had ‘experience of reaching people using zoom since May. We host workshops via zoom utilising powerpoint; sign language interpreters; and captions.’ There was, of course, a need for users to have some familiarity with zoom and own appropriate  devices. It had to recognised, she said, that ‘groups of clients will have different needs’, experience and ability to afford devices – ‘for example employment clients are more likely to be tech savvy and debt clients are more likely to use Whats App because it’s free.’

Running through the conference was the recognition of the difference that the filming of the death of George Floyd had made in engaging an international and digitally organised movement against racism. Those with long memories might remember, in a more national context, the case of innocent newspaper salesman Ian Tomlinson who died after being hit by a police officer at a demonstration. Videos obtained first by the Guardian from a passing investment fund manager blew open the police denial of responsibility.

Modern technology can transform the accountability of state actors and, in a different way, the provision of legal services. It is manifestly not the only answer but the conference revealed some of the potential. Let us hope that this brilliant conference shows us the way.

* full disclosure: also supporters of this website.

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