In late June of this year, legal advice and support organisations from across the South West came together to discuss the challenges and opportunities posed by remote advice provision in light of Covid-19. The reality of the pandemic for many meant closing physical spaces and reducing or temporarily suspending services.
Although lockdown disrupted work that was taking place, it also offered new insights into how to meet client needs in a region where geographical proximity to advice services has long been a problem for people living in rural settings. This blog post considers how the pandemic has helped to shape the ways in which advice is remotely supervised and delivered in the region, and what that means for the transition back to face-to-face services.
A roundtable event was held on 25th June 2020 as a collaboration between two national charities, LawWorks and Public Law Project, and the University of Exeter. The discussions that took place at the roundtable highlighted the importance of achieving the right ‘set-up’ to meet client needs. For some client groups, losing an in-person presence can mean a reluctance to engage with remote services delivered online or by telephone. Some services experienced a lower level of client enquiries during lockdown when physical offices had to close.
A face-to-face approach can sometimes provide the needed bridge to cross language or cultural barriers to provide someone with that needs support. The accessibility of remote advice is also an issue. Concerns about the accessibility of services range from the reliability of internet connections, to identifying the necessary adjustments to accommodate people who are deaf or blind, or whose ability to engage with remote services may be limited for other reasons. Remote advice can complement other services, but it cannot replace face-to-face advice.
At the same time, creating a new online presence has offered some important benefits for both clients and providers. The Community Law Clinic at the University of Exeter has embraced the opportunity to provide a greater reach through its services by moving them online. Remote supervision can offer greater flexibility for clients and those helping out in a pro bono capacity. The Community Law Clinic is now developing online FAQs that will help direct and identify how best to provide advice. Triaging in this way helps prioritise who needs what types of the help, with the added benefit of greater flexibility in arranging meetings because logistics are easier to manage when the meeting takes place virtually. Taking the best of in person and online advice, a blended model of in person and online could provide greater accessibility for potential clients throughout the region.
The region also has a history of remote advice provision, for example, the pioneering webcam advice project at the Dracaena Centre in Falmouth, run in partnership with the University House Legal Advice Centre. The project offers specialist legal advice to people living in Cornwall, and creates opportunities and mechanisms for lawyers to engage in pro bono work to reach beneficiaries in an under-served area.
The provision of remote advice can assist in maintaining a minimum level of service when in-person meetings are not possible and may also be an important part of the work to transition back to face-to-face services. However, a consistent message from advice services remains that chronic issues of access persist in this region, and the significant challenges present prior to the pandemic have not gone away, they have only been amplified. Having to do ‘more with less’ was already part of the picture informing advice provision in the region. The insights shared by organisations at the roundtable offer a valuable contribution to how services can be adapted to incorporate technology, but they also indicate the necessity of face-to-face advice, and the likely challenges for the transition back previous ways of working as the restrictions introduced to respond to the pandemic start to ease.
It is likely that the pandemic will have long-term effects on the use of technology in our everyday lives, but while remote advice provision has offered some capacity to continue services through the outbreak, a significant question remains about how to ensure sustainable and properly funded advice services in the region. Remote advice may help services to work towards this goal, but it does not offer a robust solution in itself.