Accessing legal advice in the last year has been increasingly difficult for many pro bono clinic clients. The pandemic has not only widened the gap for those without means to pay for legal advice, but clients have had to access advice remotely. For clinics (and other advice organisations) it has been a challenging time. Whilst they may not always be visibly on the ‘front line’, coordinators and volunteers across the Clinics Network have been offering a vital service and we thank them for their continued dedication, commitment and passion in helping those most in need.
Since the first lockdown, most clinics have had to close their doors to clients for long periods, work out how to re-establish their services remotely, support staff and volunteers who are under pressure and working from home, and navigate an uncertain funding environment. Those able to open physically had to install social distancing and sanitising measures, sometimes in restricted spaces.
The good news is that to date over 65% of clinics registered with the LawWorks Clinics Network have adapted and moved to offer their services remotely, be that via online platforms, email or telephone. For some, this was a smoother operation than for others and it has taken varying amounts of time to get to grips with new technology (be that Skype, Zoom, Teams etc.), move paperwork to online case management systems, establish remote supervision procedures, and ensure that operating policies reflect the new way of working. It has not been possible for everyone to move drop in face to face services to an online setting. Where it has been possible, we have heard from coordinators that client enquiries have been variable, with some clinics stating that they have extra capacity to take clients from outside their geographic location - a potential benefit of providing advice remotely.
Through the Clinics Network we have shared up-to-date information about clinic capacity, and strengthening referrals between clinics. Some clients have found it easier to access online services, and we would like to continue to encourage online access throughout the Network. Going forwards, some clinics are considering keeping online service provision, as well as offering in-person advice sessions (a hybrid model), when the time allows. Whilst online advice cannot meet all needs, it has proven to be beneficial for clients who are unable to leave their home, or live in rural, remote areas of the country.
Of great concern to LawWorks, and the wider advice sector, are clients often referred to as “the disappeared” – those who typically visited a clinic for advice, but are now no longer making enquiries, perhaps because they have no access to (or have difficulties using) internet, telephone or an email account. For this reason we will continue to support and encourage face-to-face services, when it is safe to do so. We anticipate that there may be a challenge to reassure and inspire pro bono volunteers to return to support these clinics. For some volunteers remote advice sessions have allowed them to flexibly fit pro bono into their day. However it also takes advice sessions into a volunteer’s personal space; we have been helping clinics to overcome challenges of maintaining client confidentiality, student supervision and volunteer wellbeing. Hybrid models of clinic and advice delivery may be the way forward, and we will continue to support the Clinics Network to adapt to clients’ needs.
LawWorks has supported clinic coordinators and their volunteers through our monthly Clinics Update publication, InfoExchanges, new resources and moving all training, events, roundtables and our annual conference online. This has attracted greater participation and the opportunity to bring together more people from across the diverse network of clinics, enabling clinic coordinators to share their experiences and learn from others. We are also capturing clinics’ experiences of the last year which will contribute to our Clinics Network Report 2020. Despite the difficulties, clinics and their volunteers have risen to the challenge, giving hope for the future. With information about the key challenges and successes that clinics encountered in 2020, we hope to bring together the pro bono community as one voice, to help influence policy and effect change. Do join us at our next online Clinics Conference on July 8th and 9th.