The world of legal advice and assistance is changing rapidly under the constrictions of Coronavirus. There is little hope that this will change any time soon. Agencies which have relied historically on face to face, community-based provision will have to adapt to delivering more services remotely in ways which protect their staff, users and volunteers from infection. A partnership involving probono.net and the Immigration Advocates Network has provided us with a timely service in publishing a study of remote legal services in US immigration services. The authors could not have predicted the arrival of a global pandemic but C-19 gives this study a much wider relevance than to just one subject in one country: its lessons and suggestions merit take up around the world.
The study is based on a survey of organisations providing immigration advice in the US. The report acknowledges that ‘technology is not a silver bullet’ though its authors are nothing if not enthusiasts. Their basic proposition is, however, surely unarguable: ‘common tools like cell phones, tablets and computers etc can help to stretch limited legal resources’. Emerging from the study is an enthusiasm by organisations to deliver more remote legal support but a lack of confidence and knowledge in how to do so. A list of seven barriers were shared by more than 40 per cent of respondents and, in order, were lack of:
- sufficient staff;
- partners to connect us to community members who need legal support;
- expertise on project management and design; equipment to deliver remote legal support;
- partners to provide legal support;
- volunteer lawyers to provide support; and
- staff willing to try innovative service delivery models.
Some of these are particular to pro bono operations, such as lack of volunteers, but many may be more general. And the commonly expressed view that staff lacked experience of, and confidence in, providing remote legal support may also be widely shared.
Remote legal support is not new. It has been used in a rural context for some time. The study looks at the Family Legal Connection of a New York organisation Legal Information for Families Today (LIFT). This is another probono.net project which allows attorneys and users to ‘meet by video chat and share documents on a website … Pro bono attorneys meet with clients for a one-hour virtual meeting … Clients can access the platform over their cell phones or computers with downloading any additional programmes or applications’. The report then, for this and other examples, gives a detail breakdown of the workflow and a checklist of tools and templates. A chapter of the report examines LIFT together with eight other projects working in a similar way. None of these are using particularly fancy technology and at least one finds that the simple texting of users is helpful as a follow up.
Anyone interested in setting up remote services would do well to look at the report because it is quite granular in its analysis of the different projects studied. One provision used quite commonly by immigration projects is Citizenshipworks, a further probono.net project. 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. If we are thinking about how this methodology might be expanded then it is worth examining how there might be national guided processes for common problems of the kind that we are beginning to see for some forms of social security application in the UK.
The survey examined the need for more resources, in particular:
- training manuals;
- webinar/online trainings on setting up and running remote legal support;
- information about successful programmes;
- sample documents to help clients understand the process;
- sample limited legal service agreements;
- training on technology-based or communications tools to support a programme;
- partnerships with interested organisations.
There are, of course, all sorts of problems with remote delivery – not least various forms of digital exclusion. C-19 is, however, going to cut off physical contact with large sections of the population, potentially over some period of time. So, we should explore what we can do remotely and look for ways around blockages. Actual access to a smartphone is probably the least barrier given how widespread they will be among users or those who might assist them. There are things that can be done. For example, toll-free calling might encourage use of phones. Ultimately, sources of free wi-fi will begin to open again – and we should lobby for places like libraries to be seen as initial points of access more than they tend to be, at least in the UK. Incorporating librarians much more into the national network of provision would also be a helpful step – it might even help to preserve them from job losses and library cuts.
The report raises some important general issues. These include trust in the organisation providing advice. In its specific context, the report notes that ‘[Community-based Organisations] that are known, liked and trusted by immigrants can play an influent role in referring … applicants to remote legal support opportunities’ and will have all the more trust if they are themselves providing that remote support. That should provide a good basis for law centres to build upon. Confidentiality and privacy are also key considerations which have to infuse how services are delivered. As in all limited service assistance – if that is what is provided – it is necessary to be clear with the user on what are reasonable expectations.
No one should argue or think that legal service delivery to those on low incomes can be shifted wholesale to the digital. However, the example of Citizens Advice in England and Wales provides an illustration of how an organisation can increase the importance of digital delivery without forsaking the traditional benefits of its bureaux and its physical staff with physical meetings. C19 presents the challenge for all community-based providers of how they too can best explore and deploy digital communication among their arsenal of weapons on behalf of their clients. Hopefully, we will begin to see more of this even as the successive ways of the C19 crisis continue to break. Probono.net and its partners have provided us with a very useful pointer to the way forward.
The main photo illustrates that the world may have gone to hell in a hand cart but bees – unlike humans – are not affected by C19. Indeed, they seem to be flourishing: ‘out of the strong came forth sweetness’ as the syrup tin always said.