Covid 19: We Are Not Alone

We are all dealing with the unprecedented shock of Covid 19. We are doing that, in most jurisdictions, while being physically isolated. This is not a good time and it will not end soon. The impact of the pandemic will get worse, for us both collectively and individually. One saving grace is, however, that we – you – are not alone. Everyone is in the same boat. And, all round the world, those working in legal aid and legal services face the same challenges and seek to overcome the same obstacles. There may be some comfort in just recognising that and hearing what people are doing – plus some inspiration in the best practices that emerge. This is an opening collection of first responses in different jurisdictions. I had intended to edit them and integrate them into a more analytic piece but, actually, the different voices are perhaps more powerful standing alone as an initial indication of responses. They are necessarily random – but hopefully representative. If you are involved in something which others might benefit from hearing about – write it up and send it in.

Unpicking themes will follow. This is only an initial attempt to develop some form of strategic overview. For the moment, we can probably divide this into three phases which are broadly, but not entirely, sequential. These are:

  • internal reorganisation around remote working for staff;
  • the production of immediate information on key legal issues affected by Covid 19 and immediate responses to changes in court and tribunal procedures (in practice, this is intricately bound up with internal organisation);
  • the longer term development of services both for support of staff and the assistance users which are dependent on remote delivery. We are barely at the beginning of this phase.

Technology has suddenly become key to all three and the learning curve has been steep. I took out a zoom subscription barely ten days ago: I am now tutoring others in its use. That is probably pretty typical. 

The two previous blogs last month by Dr Simon Davey, one written with Martha de la Roche, were aimed at identifying the management and strategic  issues which arise for legal services organisations – many of which are general to a much wider group of information and advice providers: and 

Kate Fazio’s article provides a practical example of how an excellent organisation in Australia has responded to the crisis. As another example of immediate response, here is Sherry MacLennan at Legal Aid British Columbia: 

We’ve been very much focused on adapting both our workforce and our services to appropriately socially distanced models, and this work is ongoing. For now, all of our intake is done by phone, and our in person advice service models (duty counsel, family duty counsel, etc) are adapting to video and phone services. In terms of public legal information, we have about one million people using our websites each year (Legal Aid site, Aboriginal Legal Aid, Family Law in BC and MyLawBC). Our priority has been to make people aware our services are still available, where changes have been made and to create alerts about changes in court processes by linking directly to the court sites. This has been important given the daily changes announced by the courts. We are now focused on creating greater awareness of our digitally delivered services that are relevant to public needs during the pandemic. First on MyLawBC – free mediation online for parenting issues, safety planning for those in abusive relationships, free wills and debt/mortgage help. For people with family law problems,  our Family Lawline provides six hours advice and coaching over the phone for financially eligible people. We are also ramping up our LiveChat service on the Family Law website – law students and staff who are legal information specialists answering questions from the public related to family law issues and we have increased staffing on our Call Centre to answer legal information questions. In development is the addition of Covid related family law information. In lieu of our regular community training workshops, we are doing a lot of one to one outreach to social service agencies and community workers by phone to let them know what is available and about new online resources, like our training videos on the law. In BC, there are a number of legal information providers, and our colleagues at Peoples Law School quickly got out some great information  here.

Terry Stokes of rightsnet in The U.K. reports on their immediate response as a second tier organisation that provides a community for advice providers: 

we’ve created a new social welfare law update page that’s being reviewed and updated daily: we’ve launched a new online forum to facilitate discussion and casework support related to the outbreak:  we’ve opened up access to our coronavirus-related news stories in order that they might now also be accessed without a rightsnet subscription …. you’ll see that these stories are now all tagged with ‘Open access’; we’ve launched a second new forum, ‘The Social’, that we hope might play a part in helping us all to steer a course through the next few weeks and months … and provide more of a social, less work-focused space to catch up with like-minded members of the rightsnet/access to justice community.

By contrast to second tier rightsnet, Ontario’s legal community clinics are very much in the front line: Lenny Abramowitz reports:

Clinics have just been declared an “essential service” in Ontario, and so are permitted to remain open.  All the community clinics are remaining open, but have put into place social distancing measures:

Physical offices are either closed or operated by a skeleton staff;

New intake is over the phone or via email

Staff are mostly working from home using an expanded Citrix system

Meetings are taking place via Skype for business.

Although the courts and the tribunals have essentially shut down at this point, clinics are being contacted by many new clients seeking assistance with accessing the newly expanded government income replacement programs.  The Association of Clinics is working with LAO to try to support clinics in working remotely, and in getting on top of the new programs and legislation.

Among Ontario’s clinic structure is CLEO, Community Legal Education Ontario, which has established a page of specific information on C19 issues supplemented by live chat. A number of jurisdictions have good coverage of current issues. An example would be the appropriate page of the AdviceNow website in England and Wales. Another example is the equivalent page of the magnificently named People’s Law School in Canada.

Like a number of other legal aid providers around the world, the US Legal Services Corporation has received additional funding to assist during the outbreak. It received $50m ‘to help LSC’s 132 grantees assist low-income clients facing job losses, evictions and other problems stemming from the pandemic.’ Glenn Rawdon of the US Legal Services Corporation had a helpful tip: ‘Many of our legal aid offices have had to close to keep staff safe. One practice that is spreading for these shuttered offices is the installation of video doorbells. A staff person monitors visitors remotely and can provide instructions on how to reach assistance via phone, email, or the web. This is a more personal approach than just hanging a sign on the door … a very clever, low-cost solution to address issues caused by the crisis. 

The US federal organisation and large size has encouraged remote national liaison and a number of organisations like the Self Represented Litigants Network have been mapping responses around the country. LawHelp Interactive has a youtube recording of an interesting Community Call online. 

And this is Candice Johnson of PILnet in the US: 

To support civil society as they navigate the legal issues impacting their organizations, PILnet is working with law firms in our network to create legal resources for civil society organizations and social enterprises. In order to make these resources as effective as possible, we have asked for feedback from our partners in civil society and social enterprises on which legal topics are most relevant for them. The survey can be found here. In addition, PILnet’s clearinghouses continue to operate as usual. If any civil society organization or social enterprise is need of legal support of any kind, they should contact us and we will locate free legal assistance for them.  We also continue to make available free webinars on a variety of topics of use to civil society organizations.’ Last but not least, PILnet has created a COVID-19 Legal Resource page. We are still developing this and will add more resources in the next week.

Back in England and Wales, the co-ordination role has been taken up by the Litigants in Person Network. This is Martha de la Roche, its network development manager:

As a starter, we have pulled together a list of remote working resources and materials: and started a forum page to keep track of who is doing what in terms of collective or collaborative approached to addressing the COVID-19 situation:

The US has an enviable range of resources of different kinds. This is Quinten Steenhuis, one of Greater Boston Legal Services and now of Suffolk Law School, reporting in on its activity which is directed to the issue of remote court proceedings: 

At Suffolk Law School in response to a call from our Chief Justice and the Access to Justice Commission, we are working on creating an assembly line that will triage and turn key court forms for emergency matters into simple online interviews. We’re focusing on building a replicable workflow that can help any jurisdiction rapidly turn PDFs into Docassemble interviews with acceptable fidelity for delivering online help, engaging non-programmers at key stages in the process in a drop-in way, and the possibility to use those as the base for more sophisticated forms over time. Hoping this will be useful for people around the world who need to suddenly move paper processes online. Our workflow is built around Trello, Python, Github, and the Docassemble platform.

Andrea Perry-Peterson from Queensland reminds us that some private providers have been active: ‘some resources are appearing from private firms, especially boutique firms practising in employment law such as  I interviewed “Barefoot Law” (effectively a sole trader) in Episode 19 of my [Reimagining Justice] podcast and Mark is continuing to provide information through webinars and templates like this‘ Her latest podcast is an interview with Dr Natalie Bryrom of the Legal Education Foundation (LEF – usual disclosure). She is the author of a a LEF briefing with important safeguards for those rapidly devising remote court and tribunal hearings which are discussed in an earlier post.

Back in Canada, Dave Nolette of the Justice Education Society (JES) in British Columbia reports: 

JES has been quite progressive with our organizational response to COVID. This is particularly necessary as we work and have staff in different countries, plus many of our staff and consultant travel regularly … For a couple of weeks now, almost all JES staff have been working from home. We have weekly check-in meetings with all staff – one English call, one Spanish – via Zoom. We also have weekly teams meetings, plus we connect frequently with staff based on project work. We are now creating a staff portal using MyHub. It will help us provide organizational messaging, and more importantly, provide a platform for staff to connect and share. In particular, we have asked staff to share personal stories: cat videos, child pics, wellness tips, etc. Yesterday, as an example, one of our staff lead us in a virtual yoga session. It’s my turn to add to the COVID themed song of the day. I have chosen: (I was thinking of going with Bee Gees Staying Alive, but that seemed too dramatic). March is our year-end and about 80 per cent of our projects have deliverable deadlines for next week. We are doing our best to meet deliverables, though of course, our work has been impacted. In BC, schools are closed indefinitely. Plus, courts are closed except for urgent hearings. We have suspended all school and community group court visits through to the end of June. Staff who would normally deliver this program, as well as staff that provide public facing legal help have been tasked with other projects. We are using this time to support more online delivery of legal education. So, for example, we have a Speakers Bureau that schools and groups can use to book live streaming presentations. A number of judges and lawyers have stepped forward and agreed to participate. JES Educators will also present …  In terms of legal information for the public, we are working on that now …  We’ve actually produced content, only to have it withdrawn in the review process as developments changed. That being said, we are pulling together legal information regarding employment, housing, court procedures, domestic violence, etc. On the longer term, For some months, we have been talking about being more flexible regarding work hours and in particular, enabling JES staff to work regularly from home … In this new environment, we are finding the need for great communication (time to buy Zoom stock) and greater performance management. We need improved tracking of tasks, progress and expectations.  Despite this new work reality being thrust upon us, we are finding that it is working quite well. Work is getting done … With remote work, we need more communication and management to address [the issue of staff working productively from home] However, I expect like many organizations, we are discovering just how much is possible to do and get done with staff working from home. We expect this change to have a long-standing impact and ultimately be incorporated into a new JES policy.

Finally, the Citizens Advice service in England and Wales probably has the most sensitive indicator of people’s need for advice. This is the dashboard showing hits on its national advice website. As of this morning, this was showing the top four trending content as: Coronavirus – if your employer has told you not to work – Citizens Advice 144,922 unique visits; If you can’t pay your bills because of coronavirus – Citizens Advice 77,997 unique visits; Coronavirus – check what benefits you can get – Citizens Advice 72,568 unique visits; Coronavirus – what it means for you – Citizens Advice 71,835 unique visits. Not much doubt then as to the biggest categories of advice. For a fascinating description of how Coronavirus impacted over the month, see a video produced by Tom McInnes, Citizens Advice’s chief analyst. This is really valuable information, which many organisations can probably glean from analytics figures on their websites, on what issues people are actually seeking help in relation to C19. They seem, initially, to be employment, benefits and debt. No doubt there will be others to come.

Picture by Frank Winkler via Pixabay

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