Our Not-for-Profits Programme and Secondary Specialisation, whilst being very different programmes, support beneficiary groups that have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Solicitors and member firms volunteering on both programmes have demonstrated commitment, patience and resilience over the past year in supporting these projects. Importantly, we have maintained a high level of engagement with volunteers, to ensure that our Programmes can adapt to changing needs and have the capacity to assist where required.
Pre-pandemic, our Not-for-Profits Programme worked online, so in terms of procedure this migrated well to remote working. Not-for-profits (NFPs) have continued to apply to LawWorks using our online form, with the LawWorks team working with NFPs by telephone and email to assess eligibility, and turn eligible applications into cases; when matched, volunteer lawyers provide advice in the same way. The tools that the team use are also all electronic, so moving from office to home working has been straightforward.
The challenges which Covid-19 has for the Programme largely relate to the fact it disproportionately affects vulnerable and disadvantaged beneficiary groups. Furthermore, the pandemic has significantly affected the small not-for-profits themselves; these organisations are frequently the least well placed in terms of size, infrastructure and resources to respond to the many challenges of Covid-19. Their staff and volunteers have had to adapt to changes to their working environment and personal circumstances, alongside significant financial disruption to the charity sector. The work of small NFPs has therefore become simultaneously more vital and more challenging – you can see our Not-for-Profits Programme report for 2020 published last month.
The principal achievement of the Programme in relation to Covid-19 is our growing page of Covid-19 FAQs and resources for NFPs. These resources have helped NFPs respond to the unique effects of the pandemic on their work. They were created in response to feedback and requests from NFPs; and LawWorks’ experience and understanding of the sector. As at March 2021, we have had more than 2,500 page visits and 1,120 resource downloads.
We have three ‘secondary specialisation’ projects – Welfare Benefits, Unpaid Wages, and Voices for Families (in partnership with the charity Together for Short Lives). Pre-pandemic, our London-based welfare benefits and unpaid wages projects operated in-person, whilst Voices for Families operated remotely across England and Wales. A key impact of the pandemic was that many clients of our welfare benefits project and those assisted by the Voices for Families project were required to shield. With the unpaid wages project, a key challenge has been the intersection with furlough, discrimination, and other employment rights issues.
There have also been substantive and disruptive procedural challenges. Examples include that tribunal hearings are now taking place remotely, and referral organisations have had difficulty contacting digitally-excluded clients – often the most vulnerable. With the welfare benefits project, DWP resources have been redeployed away from permitting individuals to challenge unfair assessments, towards dealing with the more than three and a half million new claims for universal credit. In Voices for Families, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman - a critical source of redress for children with life-limiting illnesses - temporarily closed in 2020 (see article by Jess Anstey).
We implemented a number of changes to the operation of the secondary specialisation projects, in response to changing client and volunteer need and to provide additional support for clients and volunteers. We have, for example, provided extensive telephone advice to clients and former clients on a range of areas of welfare benefits law, in response to significant changes to the welfare benefits system and their personal lives. In the unpaid wages project, we have provided additional training for volunteers in related areas of law, and worked closely with other employment advice organisations to identify relevant policy issues. In both Tribunal projects we have provided additional support for volunteers for remote hearings and remote client interviews, and put additional focus on the relationships we have with the organisations which refer cases to us. Because the Voices for Families project already operated remotely and volunteers do not attend hearings, fewer procedural changes were needed to adapt the project to the pandemic.