Zoom and Community Legal Outreach: Still Reaching Out after all these Years

The needs of tenants have played a major role in the development of legal services. Fifty years ago, gentrification of inner cities meant that there was a rash of illegal evictions by landlords eager to cash in on rapidly escalating house prices. In London, the Legal Action Group took shape as a way of supporting tenant lawyers. How fitting then that the Matthew Smerdon, head of the Legal Education Foundation which has recently given grant aid to LAG, should have received an intriguing text just before a gathering celebrating its first half century. It was from his GP doctor’s practice, the Richmond Road Medical Centre.

The text read, ‘Do you feel like the conditions of your property are impacting your health and want to know more about your legal rights as a tenant? If so, please join us at 6pm on Tuesday … for an interactive Housing Disrepair Legal Rights workshop. You can join this session at the below [zoom] link  …If you have any queries about the session, or would like to get involved in future projects, please message our co-ordinator Graham …’

‘Graham’ turned out to be Graham Dunning. He is not to be a lawyer at all. He works with Volunteer Centre Hackney for a project where he is part of a team in local GP practices. Hackney is an inner London borough with a mixed population in terms of class, race and age but which a recent study reported ‘remains the second most deprived local authority in England on the Government’s Indices of Multiple Deprivation and all of the wards are in the top ten percent most deprived in the country.’ 

VCHackney’s priorities are community development. ‘Our services are specifically tailored to build the capacity of community organisations through good quality volunteer management, while ensuring local people receive the support they need to progress. Our aims are to improve employment outcomes, build social cohesion, boost mental wellbeing and reduce social isolation.’

Graham Dunning said of his specific project, known as Together Better, ’Our remit is to invite patients to get involved. We text patients of the practice. Then, it is a case of seeing what people want to do. The suggestions are very wide and have included creative writing, women’s safety, self defence. It is all very patient led. We help patients to organise. One of the people who got in touch was a solicitor. She had tried other outreach projects; found it difficult to get many referrals and wanted to see if we could set something up. She suggested housing disrepair. The practice was very keen on zoom and we set it up both on zoom and in the practice’.

The lawyer was Joanna Fox of Dowse and Co. She reported that she got an attendance of around 30 split between about a third in the practice and two thirds remotely. She gave a twenty minute presentation and took questions. ‘The Q and A worked out really well. I was expecting the questions to be really specific but most had a general aspect as well.’ Zoom seemed to work well. ‘One attendee was cooking in her kitchen during the session. She came off mute to ask questions at the end,’ The event was so successful that she is repeating it later this month for another practice.  She wants to explore other topics.

Back in the 1970s when LAG started, lawyers and paralegals spent a lot of time in gloomy tenant and church halls. I was there: I remember. And, of course, zoom will not be the digital answer to all legal outreach to everyone but it does seem as if this patient-led community development project has revealed something really valuable. You can get across to a wide audience through video. No doubt, Covid has given that a boost. If your model is to set up only initial contact with follow up in person, then the restrictions on technology that make a mobile phone clumsy to use in any detailed personal interaction is not so important. 

The experience in this Hackney project mirrors that of the world-leader in zoom community outreach, the People’s Law School of British Columbia. If more organisations around the world are going to explore using zoom collective outreach – and more and more are using video in individual communication with clients – then there will be lessons to read across in best practice. 

Moving into zoom caused the People’s Law School to take a fresh look at presentation. To quote from an earlier post on its experience, ’We brainstormed what a webinar could be. We were very dissatisfied with run of the mill ones … We wanted something more like an interview format that you might find on BBC and CNN. We wanted give and take between moderator and presenter so that you are not just listening to one person. So, we got [an expert communicator] to be the interviewer/moderator with her knowledge and skills as both lawyer and professional coach … We chunk up our 60 minutes into different bits and signal what we are doing in each. Then it is really important the moderator sums up after each segment, making it easier to follow and digest.’

This sounds like a really good way of developing the format. But, it also looks as if the experience at Hackney’s Richmond Road Medical Centre suggests that you can start much more basically and work up to greater sophistication.

The mildly irrelevant photo shows a collection of Legal Action Group worthies over the last fifty years at its recent 50 year celebration and includes two founder members who organised its inaugural meeting in 1972, the solicitor in whose office it was held, four former directors, a number of present and past members of its committee and an uncharacteristically reticent author.

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