There are growing opportunities to use technology to deliver pro bono legal services. While the growth of telephone advice services has led to a general understanding, familiarity and acceptance of the idea of providing or receiving legal assistance by telephone, models of pro bono assistance using online technology are still developing. This may be due, in part, to the fact that people who cannot afford to pay for legal assistance are also those least likely to have the resources to keep up with and feel comfortable with technology.1
Providing legal information, referral and advice online may involve setting up a website containing legal information or providing advice by email. Pro bono lawyers have supported such online advice services by volunteering to post or check material on the website, and responding to email requests for legal advice.
The use of telephone and online video conferencing facilities in particular are often viewed as a way to address unmet legal need that is exacerbated by lack of physically available/accessible services (for example, where a service is geographically inaccessible to people in regional, rural and remote (RRR) areas, or where a client has limited mobility). However, there may also be some client groups, like children and young people, who do not live in a RRR area but prefer the immediacy and anonymity that the online format can offer. For example, a partnership between Eastern CLC, Barwon Community Legal Service and Deakin University Student Association has set up Sort it! — a legal advice service for students at Deakin University, providing advice by email, as well as referrals, and making information resources available over the web.
The Director of the National Children’s and Youth Law Centre (NCYLC), Matthew Keeley, said that ‘the opportunities for using new technology to deliver legal assistance services are continually growing and evolving.’ NCYLC provides legal advice via its LawMail app, and information via its LawStuff sites on the web and via social media. See case study at 26.5.1.
This section looks at the common features of pro bono models using different types of technology, then examines them individually: telephone advice, video conferencing, website, email advice and a combination of some or all of the above.
- 26.1 Technology- based Services: At a Glance
- 26.2 Technology-based Services: Benefits
- 26.3 Technology-based Services: Challenges/Limitations
- 26.4 Features of Effective Technology-based Services
- 26.5 Case study
- 26.6 Telephone Advice
- 26.7 Case studies
- 26.8 Video-Conferencing
- 26.9 Website
- 26.10 Email
- 26.11 Case study
26.1 TECHNOLOGY-BASED SERVICES: AT A GLANCE
Features that make it work
26.2 TECHNOLOGY-BASED SERVICES: BENEFITS
The use of technology-based services is often seen as a way to address unmet legal need that is exacerbated by lack of physically available or accessible services (for example, where a service is geographically inaccessible to people in RRR areas, or where a client has limited mobility). The Director at QPILCH, Tony Woodyatt, suggested that online service delivery could potentially work in RRR areas with the rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN), for example: ‘Townsville needs a self-representation service that could perhaps be staffed with solicitors working remotely.’ He also suggested that mobile internet technology could have particular benefits in disaster or emergency situations. ‘The Queensland flood response bought an iPad to use at the reconstruction centre but were not organised enough to use it effectively this time around.’
However, despite the increasing use of digital devices such as smartphones, it is still the case that Australians experiencing disadvantage or marginalisation engage less with digital technology. Factors affecting digital engagement include income, skills, education, disability, literacy, language skills, age and geographic location. This is a key factor when considering the provision of technology-based legal assistance.1
Advice can be sought and provided within a relatively short timeframe. For example, Matthew Keeley explained that the national and web presence of the NCYLC via Lawstuff means clients can access information no matter where they are in the country and whatever time of the day, and receive written advice and referrals via its LawMail service within seven days (unless it is an urgent matter that needs to be dealt with even earlier).
From the perspective of those providing legal assistance services, the potential reduction in time and cost associated with providing in-person legal services is very attractive.
From the firms point of view, any model that involves having their staff leaving the office less is a potential positive. (Mid-sized law firm pro bono coordinator)
See also case study on Hobart Community Legal Service and DLA Piper for use of technology in the CLE context at 29.4.2.
26.3 TECHNOLOGY-BASED SERVICES: CHALLENGES/LIMITATIONS
Communication can be more difficult without face-to-face contact with clients. Many clients may need support from someone who is physically present, and some may not be comfortable with using technology-based services at all. In his role as Operations Manager at Geraldton Resource Centre, Chris Gabelish questioned the idea that phone or online advice is better than no advice. ‘This is particularly relevant for clients who may face cultural and/or language barriers in communicating effectively. The wrong message might be transmitted by either the client or provider, if not conducting the initial client interview face-to-face. Even if there is a delay in making an appointment it is better to have a face-to-face meeting then do follow up by phone. This is of course affected by the seriousness and urgency of the client matter.’
While IT will be of some assistance, it should not be seen as a panacea, as many clients do not have access to computers and some clients and matters are not amenable to this form of contact. Use of IT should be developed with care. (PBRO manager)
The preference for using technology to deliver community legal education remotely to avoid the costs associated with long-distance travel also has an impact on the networking opportunities for lawyers and community workers in remote communities.
Firms like the idea of doing more pro bono work via online technology like Skype or podcasts. However, they need to fully understand the loss of interaction and networking opportunities with a web-based seminar (and that a number of RRR organisations are unable to access adequate technology). Their perception is very much of the lawyer imparting information, rather than relationships where there is understanding and contributions on both sides. (PBRO manager)
The convenience, ease and accessibility of requesting assistance using technology, for those familiar with it, raises concerns about a flood of requests for assistance, with clients having a stronger expectation of receiving immediate advice. The QPILCH Director Tony Woodyatt said he is open to the idea of providing advice by email and already does so to some extent with the Self Representation Service (see case study at 20.5.1) with some advice and documents being transmitted by email. However, given that QPILCH is already working at capacity, he is concerned that publicising an online service will open the floodgates. ‘It is already difficult to stop clients from repeatedly calling.’
When clients call our telephone advice service, they sometime express frustration when they are told that they will be called back with an answer. It is important to explain from the beginning the likelihood of the lawyer needing to take time to do research. (CLC coordinator)
The CLC was reluctant to advertise the email advice service for fear that they would not have the resources to respond to the deluge of requests for assistance. (Large law firm pro bono coordinator)
One of the major limitations of technology-based services is the inability to reach people who are not familiar or comfortable with using the technology.
Some of those consulted expressed frustration that clients, lawyers, the legal assistance sector and the legal profession generally could be slow to embrace the use of technology. For example, Kerry Wright, Coordinator at Shoalcoast CLC, explained that the South East region of NSW (particularly the Cooma-Monaro area) really suffers from lack of lawyers doing legal aid and pro bono work, particularly in family law. For family law matters, access to Federal Magistrates Court is another barrier to justice, with Wollongong and Canberra being difficult to access due to travel and related expenses for many disadvantaged people in those regions. ‘Shoalcoast, along with CLSD partners, wrote to the Federal Magistrates Court about a range of access issues including better use of technology to reduce the number of times that people have to personally attend court, and discussions are ongoing.’
There needs to be more willingness to push boundaries eg use of technology like Skype to deliver services where distance is an issue. (CLC principal solicitor)
There is a general antipathy in the sector towards provision of legal assistance online, with an agenda of maintaining the priority of face-to-face services. (CLC manager)
The cost of setting up and maintaining the necessary technology (which may include where the client is located, where the lawyer is located, and possibly the host agency), has been an obstacle to the development of such services. For example, Tony Woodyatt said he looked at the possibility of using the system that LawWorks in the UK uses to refer matters to lawyers online, but the cost of a similar system in Queensland would require significant funding that may not be cost effective.
Video conferencing has been cumbersome and expensive to set up and run, but may improve when more people have access to, and are comfortable with, services like Skype. (Large law firm pro bono coordinator)
Many of those consulted expressed concern about quality control and risk management in providing legal advice using new technologies. Identified risk factors included the impact of technology on the way instructions were received, on the level of communication between the lawyer and client and on the client’s expectations of speed and possible anonymity.
We need to work out how to establish liability for online advice, ensuring that it is properly checked and the risks are properly addressed. (Mid-sized law firm pro bono coordinator)
Sometimes young people use pseudonyms or want to remain anonymous. The inability to verify the identity of clients creates challenges for conflict checking. (CLC manager)
One of the challenges of the telephone advice or video conferencing model as opposed to the email model is that advice is being given in real time so there either needs to be an experienced lawyer providing the advice or a senior lawyer proximate to the junior lawyers so they can hear what they are saying to clients. (CLC manager)
26.4 FEATURES OF EFFECTIVE TECHNOLOGY-BASED SERVICES
When considering adopting technology-based services, it is important to assess whether there is actually a gap in legal services that a technology-based service could address. Would the technology-based service duplicate an existing service, and would the unmet need be appropriately addressed using the technology-based service?
For technology-based services that are used as a form of outreach, having a partnership with a local community organisation, CLC or legal aid is as crucial for the success of the service as it is for other forms of outreach.
Particularly if online advice is to address unmet legal need in RRR areas, there would need to be a person acting as a filter for matters who could ensure that all the relevant background information on the client’s matter is obtained. (Mid-sized law firm pro bono coordinator)
However, support also needs to be provided to staff members working in these ‘intermediary organisations’ who are more likely to promote the use of new technology-based services if they feel comfortable with using it themselves and can see the benefits. The principal solicitor at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), Jonathon Hunyor, said that lawyers in NT are accustomed to using phone and video link facilities to communicate given the necessity of their use in remote areas.
To address concerns that using technology-based services might open up the floodgates of demand, there needs to be appropriate planning and an understanding of the resource requirements. Necessary resources may include the cost of setting up and maintaining the infrastructure at the client, lawyer and host organisation locations, ongoing training and support for the host organisation staff, providing local professional support to clients using technology-based services, and the work associated with the provision of advice which goes beyond the initial telephone or online advice to file-noting and case management.
26.5 CASE STUDY
26.5.1 Case study: LawMail and Lawstuff (National Children’s and Youth Law Centre, King & Wood Mallesons, Telstra, ASIC and Microsoft)
The National Children’s and Youth Law Centre (NCYLC) located at the UNSW Faculty of law, was established in June 1993, and has played a fundamental role in the provision of legal advice to young people. In April 1997, NCYLC developed an innovative facility for providing these services online. Its use of a mobile adaptive website, email, phone advice and social media, has radically transformed NCYLC’s ability to offer legal advice nationally.
The model has potential application for RRR areas and is inevitable as society becomes more comfortable with the technology. Young people already prefer this medium. (Jane Farnsworth, Special Counsel, Pro Bono and Community, K&WM)
The multi-jurisdictional website, ‘Lawstuff’, is regularly updated to include comprehensive information on a diverse range of topics for young people (under 25) living in different states and territories. It also has an interactive animation feature, ‘CourtStuff’, which provides valuable insight in a visual form about what young people can expect when going to court. NCYLC posts relevant legal information via Facebook and Twitter, and as at May 2016 had over 2,600 likes on its Facebook page, including young people and organisations.
LawMail is an internet-based legal advice, information and referral service, aimed at children and young people, which was added to the Lawstuff website in October 1998. The LawMail service is supplemented by occasional telephone advice and minor casework assistance.
Our aim is to be a national leader in enhancing access to justice and in the use of technology to do so. (Matthew Keeley, Director, NCYLC)
During the 2015 calendar year, the Centre provided mostly written advice, information and referrals to over 2,600 clients. Over the past five years, the issues of most concern to young people have included:
- family violence / domestic violence / sexual assault;
- family disputes and leaving home;
- online harms (harassment, ‘revenge’ porn etc);
- school powers and duties; and
NCYLC’s capacity to respond to LawMails and run its other services, including research projects, has been greatly increased by the contribution of pro bono resources that its pro bono partners have made. In early 2007 the Centre built on its existing relationship with the law firm King & Wood Mallesons (K&WM) to pilot the Cyber Volunteers Project in the Brisbane K&WM office. Following the success of the pilot, the Project was rolled out nationally and is now operating in each of the capital cities where K&WM has offices (Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Perth). In 2010, K&WM asked two of its clients, Telstra and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) to join the Project. Microsoft is another K&WM client that joined the project in 2015.
How it works
The LawMail service operates with the assistance of five to six ‘cyber volunteers’ at a time. They sit in a technology training room within K&WM and log in to the LawMail service to access emails from young people requesting assistance. The volunteers often work in pairs so they can support each other’s work.
NCYLC lawyers conduct an initial assessment of the requests for assistance, making notes on the matter to assist the volunteers who will be responsible for providing the draft advice. Before providing the advice, the volunteer will dial in to speak with a NCYLC lawyer, draft an answer which is checked and settled by a lawyer at NCYLC, then emailed to the client.
There are over 120 volunteer lawyers from K&WM and other partners on the roster which is organised by coordinators in each K&WM office. K&WM has also provided assistance (contributions of both money and time) to allow the service to grow, including three-day-a-week funding for a solicitor dedicated to the project, a secondee for six months full-time on a rotating basis, and an additional secondee for the Child Rights Taskforce Project which helped compile a report for a child rights project. The NYCLC and its pro bono partners won a 2015 NAPCAN National Play Your Part Award for their work in leading reform in Children’s Law and innovative legal service delivery.
- Use of technology makes legal services accessible to young people. The Director of NCYLC, Matthew Keeley, explained that ‘Young people are comfortable with technology and in many cases prefer using mobile/online forms of communication. The trend is towards the use of mobile networks/smart phones, especially as they become cheaper, with over 90% of young people between 16–18 years of age using mobile phones.’
- Clients have the option of remaining anonymous while using the service. ‘Many young people are concerned about confidentiality and would prefer to remain anonymous. The online medium, which young people are generally comfortable navigating, allows clients to obtain legal information using an anonymous web persona.’
- Provides early intervention and referral without competing with the casework of other legal assistance services. NCYLC works on the assumption that the advice that they provide is preliminary in nature and they are unlikely to obtain all the details of the young person’s matter via the LawMail service (although they may take on a test case on an ad hoc basis). NCYLC often refers young people to their local CLC, legal aid or youth service which can give advice specific to the relevant jurisdiction. When making referrals, NCYLC will call the organisation to ensure that the client will be accepted by the service and not end up on the referral roundabout.
- Advice is provided within a relatively short timeframe. NCYLC’s national and web presence via its Lawstuff website means that clients can access information at any time, from anywhere in the country with internet access, and can obtain advice via LawMail within a fortnight. Where a matter is considered urgent, it will be dealt with much earlier and often by the next business day.
- Email advice is highly accountable. The LawMail service provides written advice in email form to all its clients.
- Easier data collection for the CLC. The LawMail portal asks young people requesting assistance to enter information in an online form which can readily be used for the NCYLC’s data collection purposes. Most clients fill in all the fields, for example, those relating to their ethnicity, age or gender.
- The nature of the pro bono work that the cyber volunteers project involves is attractive to law firm and in-house lawyers. Fiona Robson (Supervising Counsel and Company Secretary Telstra) explained that the ‘Cyberlaw Project is the perfect project for in-house counsel as it involves a relatively small time commitment and the work can be done via the internet, but is extremely interesting and important work.’ For more information about Telstra’s and ASIC’s experiences of being involved in the project see Chapter 15 In-house/corporate lawyers and Chapter 16 Government lawyers.
- Email advice can easily be altered to change or misrepresent the advice. Given this risk, some lawyers prefer to send advice in a PDF attachment rather than text in an email. NCYLC chose not to so this because PDFs are downloaded, creating a risk that a client using, say, a school computer, might leave their confidential and priveleged legal advice on the compchaputer for someone else to read.
- Provision of advice with incomplete instructions. Given that the emails requesting assistance often contain incomplete instructions, NCYLC always preface email advice by saying that it is preliminary information or advice, stating the assumptions that have been made, and telling the client that if the assumptions are incorrect they should contact NCYLC again for further advice.
- Risk of conflicts. The inability to verify the identity of clients, for example where young people use pseudonyms or want to remain anonymous, creates challenges for conflict checking. Matthew Keeley said that he saw parallels with women in domestic violence situations who may provide pseudonyms to protect themselves. He explained that NCYLC manages the risk rather than allowing it to be a barrier to providing advice to vulnerable clients. NCYLC have been able to effectively check for conflicts by using information other than the client’s name or date of birth. For example, it may use the date of the incident along with the client’s school or postcode, knowing that it is highly unlikely that there would be two unrelated events on the same date in the same school/postcode given that the NCYLC service is national.
- Providing advice in a written form can be more time consuming than it is on the phone or in person. Advice provided via LawMail is usually quite lengthy (around two to three pages) as a number of alternatives and assumptions need to be explained given that the clients’ emailed instructions are often incomplete. Jane Farnsworth explained that ‘very few clients return to the service for additional assistance so the initial advice needs to be as comprehensive as possible.’
- Creating and maintaining quality content for the website. NCYLC is considering linking to other quality sites and resources, as a less onerous way of providing content.
- Technical glitches, support and maintenance. There is a current project to update the LawMail software to fix issues such as the inability to attach documents in the LawMail system. Matthew Keeley said that NCYLC could use extra support from firms with web-design, social media and other technical support.
- Resistance to the use of technology in the legal assistance sector. Matthew Keeley has observed a ‘general antipathy in the sector towards provision of legal assistance online, even as an adjunct to face-to-face services, although in the last year or two this appears to be shifting.’
Features that make it effective
- Strong web presence. The strength of NCYLC’s web presence is helped by the fact that it is a national centre, meaning that it often ranks higher than other CLCs do in a Google search.
- Flexibility in responding to the needs of individual clients, especially clients in crisis. For example NCYLC will call the local legal or other support service before referring a distressed young person to ensure that they will accept and respond to the person. Matthew Keeley explained that ‘five percent of requests for advice are about leaving home and the legal right to do so, often in circumstances where there is abuse, neglect, damaging breakdown of relationships. In these circumstances the young person does not need any barriers to be put between them and the service so information will be provided, even if NCYLC does not have full details’.
- NCYLC does some of the early triage, merits assessment and information provision and advises the young person to take the advice with them when referring them, which saves time for the local service they are being referred to. It is the online equivalent of the telephone information service provided by Law Access NSW (see case study at 26.7.3).
- Support for the project within K&WM at a senior management level. See also Chapter 4 Importance of developing a strong pro bono culture.
- An equal relationship between NCYLC and K&WM has been developed over time. NCYLC is now in a position to assist K&WM with its other pro bono projects by taking on or referring clients, or providing direct support.
- Regular communication between all project partners. NCYLC is in contact with the cybervolunteers at least four times a week, with the Principal Solicitor at NCYLC calling the designated office within K&WM where the volunteers are working on LawMails to provide a 15-minute brief on the LawMails they have received. All of the project partners catch up quarterly to discuss how the project is going and what can be improved, and to hear feedback from NCYLC about the results of client surveys in a quarterly report.
- Training and close supervision of volunteers. All LawMails are checked by the Principal Solicitor at NCYLC before they are sent to clients and NCYLC undertakes regular training and continuing legal education of the cyber-volunteers.
- Having lawyers working in pairs enhances both the quality of the work and the enjoyment of the lawyers drafting the advice.
- Systems for addressing the challenges of providing advice online have been developed by NCYLC, for example, conflict checking using the place and date of incident rather than always having to verify the client’s identity, and being clear about the assumptions being made in advice given the incomplete nature of the instructions received via LawMail.
26.6 TELEPHONE ADVICE
Telephone advice services can take various forms. For example, a law firm may take referrals from their partner CLC or community organisation, which involves receiving a list of clients to call after conflict checks have been performed. Several large law firms participate in the telephone advice service run by the Arts Law Centre of Australia, where the Centre sets up the call and the pro bono lawyer will then call the client and provide advice: see the case study at 19.5.2. Pro bono providers may also roster lawyers to staff telephone advice services that operate from the premises of a CLC or community organisation: see case studies at 22.5.5 and 26.7.1).
TELEPHONE ADVICE: AT A GLANCE
Features of effective telephone advice
TELEPHONE ADVICE: BENEFITS
For many people living in remote parts of Australia, telephone advice currently remains the only way for them to access legal help without travelling long distances. However, this situation may improve with the full rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN) and the growth of online services. The convenience of telephone advice also means clients are more likely to attend an appointment than if they had to travel to another location.
Telephone advice services provide the firm with access to clients where there are no other services available. (Large law firm pro bono coordinator)
Clients are less likely to not turn up to telephone advice (around one third of clients may not turn up to a face-to-face appointment at a clinic). (Large law firm pro bono coordinator)
Given there is less time and cost required to deliver telephone advice than with face-to-face service delivery, it is an attractive option for firms. Lawyers can generally provide the advice from their desks, which makes outreach work via telephone a more practical option for firms. It is also possible to deal with a higher volume of cases using telephone advice.
Advice can be provided more quickly using the phone (meaning actual legal advice, not just legal information). (Large law firm pro bono coordinator)
We dont regularly do telephone advice, but if there are only two or three clients arranged for an outreach session we might provide the advice by telephone rather than travelling a long distance for only a few clients. (Mid-sized law firm pro bono coordinator)
The CLC has done the screening work and can provide a brief of the matter so the lawyer has time to research the matter and write up advice before making the call to the client. (Large law firm pro bono coordinator)
The Director of QPILCH, Tony Woodyatt, explained that one of the particular advantages of using a mobile phone for telephone advice is that calls do not have to go through the firms’ switch and it can be passed to other staff members if the allocated volunteer is busy. ‘One Homeless Persons Legal Clinic (HPLC) clinic has a mobile phone that is passed around staff members of the firms. Clients call the mobile from the host organisation and can also fax documents through to the firm.’
TELEPHONE ADVICE: CHALLENGES/LIMITATIONS
While telephone advice may be easier to obtain than advice in person, many of those consulted warned that there are limits to what can be done over the phone. Communication and establishing a relationship of trust with clients can be more difficult without face-to-face contact, especially for profoundly disadvantaged clients or where sensitive issues need to be discussed. For example, the team at Queensland Advocacy Incorporated (QAI) said it is difficult to build rapport with someone over the phone, particularly for people with disabilities.
There are obvious limitations eg you cant point to a document or see that the client is holding a bundle of documents, but it is better to have telephone advice than no advice at all. Video conferencing is better than telephone advice as you can see the client. (Mid-sized law firm pro bono coordinator)
There is a reduction in nuanced, high-quality communication. Face-to-face meetings make it easier to read your client. (Large law firm pro bono coordinator)
It can also be more difficult to adequately supervise lawyers providing telephone advice, especially as the clients may expect an immediate response.
More on the spot advice is provided over the phone compared to face-to-face interviews. While face-to-face advice usually involves the collection of facts in a face-to-face interview, the legal advice is often provided in writing later, and there is supervision of that work eg drafts of letters are checked. (Large law firm pro bono coordinator)
The National Pro Bono Manager at the Australian Government Solicitor, Geetha Nair, said that in her discussions with certain CLCs that on the one hand it seemed to be difficult to promote and raise public awareness of the existence of telephone advice services amongst those most in need, but that it was also challenging to find the resources to meet the demand for such services. ‘The pro bono work goes beyond the initial telephone advice to file-noting and case management.’ Queensland Advocacy Incorporated (QAI) had a telephone advice service, staffed by volunteer solicitors, which has been temporarily discontinued due to lack of resources (although the QAI staff solicitor will still provide telephone advice if resources allow).
FEATURES OF EFFECTIVE TELEPHONE ADVICE
The Legal and Information Service Manager at LawAccess NSW, Trina Robinson, said that it was essential to ensure that the staff of the service had appropriate skills to deliver telephone service effectively. ‘The need for skills like plain language, listening and conflict resolution skills becomes more pronounced because people are often calling when they are desperate (30% of LawAccess calls are urgent) and it is harder to gauge how the customer is reacting and whether they are understanding the information/advice:’ see case study at 26.7.3.
One large law firm pro bono coordinator expressed the view that those with strong face-to-face communication skills are generally effective telephone communicators, and that there were not necessarily any special telephone communication skills that needed to be acquired. However, the team at QAI said that the person who was running their telephone service (when it was still funded) conducted a whole day/evening training session for volunteers and provided a detailed list of the steps they go through when training lawyers to provide telephone advice: ‘We go through 1) walking the client through the advice, 2) explaining that the lawyer is taking notes, 3) checking for understanding, 4) asking the client to repeat the information back, 5) calling back with extra or amended advice, and 6) sending a follow up letter of advice, especially if it is a complex issue. This can be very time consuming, as the assistance does not stop when the phone call ends. This reflects the needs of QAI clients who may have an intellectual disability, cognitive impairment or mental illness’.
There need to be protocols in place for the conduct of telephone advice. Lawyers providing the telephone advice know when to take a break and ask a question or do other research before giving the client the advice. (Large law firm pro bono coordinator)
If telephone advice is used to provide outreach, it is important to have a community organisation as a local partner that has face-to-face contact with clients, and can identify those who would benefit from telephone advice and provide them with support if necessary.
It is helpful to have a local partner who can sit with the person on the other end of the phone and assess the client’s capacity. For example, in a guardianship matter in Wagga involving a client who is a teenager with a mild intellectual disability, a legal aid solicitor in Wagga sat with the client while he was receiving telephone advice and provided support and was able to check for visual cues. (Large law firm pro bono coordinator)
Having some initial contact in person with either the local partner organisation or the pro bono provider before providing telephone advice can help to develop rapport and trust. For example, the Pro Bono Partner at Clayton Utz, David Hillard, explained that at the Family Violence Prevention Legal Services in Walgett and Bourke, while victims compensation work is done over the phone, initial meetings are held at the partner organisation’s office. ‘The partner organisation also assists the firm to find clients if they lose contact. The firm sends lawyers every three to four months to talk to clients face-to-face, and the partner organisation assists in organising clients to attend.’
Having a combination of face-to-face and telephone advice can alleviate some of the difficulties with establishing rapport and trust with clients (initial face-to-face contact followed up with telephone advice). (Mid-sized law firm pro bono coordinator)
26.7 CASE STUDIES
- 26.7.1 Case study: Queensland Advocacy Incorporated
- 26.7.2 Case study: Macarthur Legal Centre and Seyfarth Shaw
- 26.7.3 Case study: LawAccess NSW (email advice)
26.7.1 Case study: Queensland Advocacy Incorporated
Queensland Advocacy Incorporated (QAI) operates a telephone legal advice service, staffed by volunteer solicitors. These solicitors come individually, and from the Public Advocate Office or law firms such as Clyde & Co and previously Sparke Helmore to provide legal advice over the phone for people with a disability. The aim of the service is to expand the provision of legal advice & information to people with disability in Queensland.
The service operates each Thursday in two four hour shifts and provides advice around restrictive practices, guardianship and administration, matters arising under the Mental Health Act or Forensic Disability Act, disability discrimination, power of attorneys, advanced health directions and human rights.
- Telephone advice is better than no advice.
- Reaches those unable to attend a CLC.
- Convenient and easy.
- Provides appropriate referrals.
- Advice sessions being cancelled when volunteers are unable to attend due to competing priorities.
- Solicitors who are inexperienced in the relevant areas of law need to be closely supervised by QAI which creates additional work for the supervising solicitor. Therefore it is important to select appropriate volunteers who are interested in, and committed to, the work.
- It is difficult to build rapport with someone over the phone, particularly for people with disabilities.
- Clients have a stronger expectation of immediate advice when they call a telephone advice service and sometime express frustration when told that they will be called back with an answer. It is important to explain from the beginning the likelihood of the solicitor needing to take time to do research.
What features make it effective
- The supervisor provide intensive initial training for the volunteers.
- The training specifically covers telephone advice skills. ‘We go through 1) walking the client through the advice, 2) explaining that the lawyer is taking notes, 3) checking for understanding, 4) asking the client to repeat the information back, 5) calling back with extra or amended advice, and 6) sending a follow up letter of advice, especially if it is a complex issue. This can be very time consuming, as the assistance does not stop when the phone call ends. This reflects the needs of QAI clients who may have an intellectual disability, cognitive impairment or mental illness.
- The supervisor is readily accessible to volunteers.
26.7.2 Case study: Macarthur Legal Centre and Seyfarth Shaw
Macarthur Legal Centre (MLC) is a generalist community legal centre in regional NSW with a large catchment area spanning from Macquarie Fields to Goulburn and Yass. MLC provides a telephone advice service on Tuesday evenings and Thursday afternoons. The service is staffed by CLC lawyers along with students and volunteer private solicitors.
When requests for employment law advice are received, the volunteer lawyers or students take the initial instructions, and MLC sends an advice referral to the pro bono partner at Seyfarth Shaw. Where there is no conflict of interest, a solicitor at Seyfarth Shaw calls the client directly and gives telephone advice or provides minor assistance. Seyfarth Shaw reports back to MLC by email, and MLC records the advice on its files.
- A telephone advice service reaches clients that would otherwise never receive any legal advice.
- The partnership with Seyfarth Shaw ensures that clients receive expert advice or assistance in employment law, while allowing MLC solicitors to focus their time and effort on other, potentially more disadvantaged, people in the catchment.
- Seyfarth Shaw solicitors feel they have opportunities to give back to the community.
- An inadequate phone system, due to budgetary restrictions. With a limited number of incoming lines, clients can feel frustrated if they either have to wait or leave a message.
- Ensuring consistent quality of advice given by phone. Referring employment law matters to Seyfarth Shaw, however, has ensured that the relevant expertise is applied in these matters.
- Responding to all clients that call in one advice session with a small number of solicitors in a difficult to access area of high unmet legal need.
- Avoiding the referral roundabout from LawAccess to CLCs.
- Building pro bono partnerships with other firms willing to accept referrals in other areas of law.
Features that make it effective
- Skills in the provision of telephone advice. Given MLC’s large catchment area and the need to rely on telephone advice, the volunteer solicitors require communication skills to provide advice effectively over the phone.
- Information resources to support the lawyers providing advice in areas of law that are unfamiliar. The pro bono solicitors refer to the Redfern Legal Centre Law Handbook and an internally-prepared telephone advice manual, which contains information about statutory limits and on each of the legal issues that arise most frequently during the advice sessions.
- Supervision of volunteers. There is a need to ensure that the advice being provided over the phone by pro bono solicitors is of an acceptable quality and that none of the private solicitors refers matters to their own firms. The client sheets are checked carefully and the client is called back if the advice is incomplete or incorrect.
26.7.3 Case study: LawAccess NSW (email advice)
LawAccess NSW is a service provided by the New South Wales government to provide legal information, referrals and one-off telephone advice.
Information Officers — Legal (IOLs) answer calls providing ‘legal information’, but not ‘legal advice’. IOLs work to answer calls with an average talk time of approximately 8-9 minutes per call. If a customer requires further assistance, the IOLs will decide whether to refer the call to another service or ‘log’ the call through the Customer Relationship Management system (CRM) so that legal advice can be provided by one of LawAccess NSW’s in-house lawyers. Around 70-80 calls are logged each day, with a summary of each advice recorded on a database. The lawyers work to a target of 10-15 advices for each full day on the phone. If the matter is not suitable for one-off advice or requires additional expertise and assistance, lawyers will refer the matter, for example, to Legal Aid, Community Legal Centres (CLCs) or private lawyers via the NSW Law Society Referral Scheme.
Note that because LawAccess NSW’s primary role is to provide telephone advice, it is well resourced to provide a high level of training and supervision of its telephone advice service in a way that many other organisations are not.
This works particularly well when people need urgent legal assistance, as it can be difficult to obtain help elsewhere within a very short timeframe. The service may provide assistance in multiple phone calls where it is appropriate due to the complexity of the matter, for example, where there are multiple legal issues that need to be dealt with in stages, like an application for an apprehended violence order, where there are criminal charges, and where the parties are separated and have children together. Multiple calls may also be made in response to the needs of the customer (eg where they have issues with literacy, a disability or some other complex disadvantage). Where necessary, customers can email or fax documents to the lawyer who will be advising them.
- The service is accessible to a broad range of people and is available to take urgent calls. Currently more than 30% of calls are urgent calls from people who need advice on the same day, for example, people in custody, where they need to attend court within two days, or where there is domestic violence.3 This indicates that LawAccess NSW is addressing a gap in services.
- Legal Aid and CLCs can benefit from the information resources produced by LawAccess NSW. The LawAccess NSW website (www.lawaccess.nsw.gov.au) has been redesigned to provide a single online starting point for legal information produced by LawAccess NSW, as well as other services like Legal Aid NSW, CLCs and government departments. The Representing Yourself section of the website has been developed for users who have no other option or choose to represent themselves; step-by-step guides, sample forms and instructions, flowcharts and videos are available to help customers navigate the legal process. The website is regularly praised by NSW Local Court, Legal Aid NSW and CLC staff who use the resources to support their clients. The redesigned website also incorporates LawPrompt — an online resource available only to staff in LawAccess NSW, Legal Aid and CLCs, which provides updates on the law, media alerts, frequently asked questions and answers. LawPrompt was developed for internal use only and written for staff who have the skills and experience to identify legal issues.
- Managed referrals. LawAccess NSW assists customers by helping them identify their legal problem, providing initial information to help them understand the general process and connecting them to the service that can best help them. For example, in a domestic violence situation a customer would receive initial information or legal advice before being referred to the Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service (WDVCAS). This ensures that the customer has a better understanding of the law and what to expect before arriving at court. The aim is to ensure that the customer avoids the ‘referral roundabout’ and is able to get the most out of their advice session.
- Access to client documents. As a telephone service, information officers and lawyers are restricted in not being able to read or see customer’s documents. Where it is identified that viewing a document may assist a lawyer to provide advice, the customer can provide the documents electronically.
- The service does not fill in forms for customers. Information officers provide assistance to customers wanting to apply for Legal Aid, routinely helping customers to complete an application form over the phone, but they cannot assist customers to complete court forms. IOLs will direct customers to the Representing Yourself section of the LawAccess NSW website which provides sample forms or instructions on how to complete forms, although the service does not include filling in forms. In some circumstances lawyers will tell customers what to write on the forms or will direct customers to Representing Yourself for guidance on how to complete the form.
- Need for staff with appropriate skills to deliver telephone service effectively. As a telephone service, staff need to able to listen, effectively question and have skills to navigate people who contact the service who can sometimes be emotional or have barriers that may affect their interaction with the legal system. Staff are provided with training about having empathy and providing good customer service to overcome the challenge of being limited to the voice to understand how the customer is reacting and the level of understanding they have about what has been discussed.
- Using other interpreter services like the Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS) and the National Relay Service. This ensures customers that rely on interpreting services have the same experience in talking with LawAccess NSW. Training in managing interpreter calls is provided as part of induction.
- The service is limited by its operating hours. LawAccess NSW hours of operation are from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. There is still a great unmet legal need with few services available to take urgent calls outside of these hours, such as custody calls. The LawAccess NSW website provides access to legal information outside of regular business hours to help overcome this limitation.
Features that make it effective
- Competitive recruitment process targeting required skills. LawAccess NSW is able to recruit high-calibre staff members who already possess strong plain language communication and customer service skills because there is a lot of competition for the advertised positions and the recruitment process places emphasise on these required skills.
- Well-resourced, extensive induction and training programs. Upon joining the organisation as an information officer staff are given an extensive two-week induction program covering systems and online resources, policies like Code of Conduct, flexible service delivery and all aspects of the role. LawAccess NSW lawyers provide induction training on a number of legal topics highlighting key issues and effective questioning techniques. IOLs also receive specific customer service training and training in general skills such as cross-cultural communication and flexible service delivery during and following induction that draws on real-life experience using best practice models. Once staff have started in the role as an information officer they receive regular training around legal changes and customer service. Training needs are considered as part of regular achievement planning for all staff members.
- Established procedures to ensure best practice. LawAccess NSW has developed a policy and service standards manual to ensure best practice. This document is provided to staff and customers via the website. LawAccess NSW is committed to quality customer service and strives to ensure that IOLs and lawyers check in with customers at the end of the call to ensure that they know what to do next and in some cases will make follow-up calls to customers.
- Inclusion of other support services in the provision of information or advice. Aboriginal IOLs are available to speak with Aboriginal customers to provide legal information or referral and can sit in on a call with a lawyer where the customer would like the additional support.
- Supervision and feedback to ensure quality control. Like most contact centre environments LawAccess NSW operates in an open floor plan providing greater accessibility of team leaders and lawyers. Team leaders are able to respond to questions, issues or concerns in real-time. Side-by-side coaching of staff through calls provides an opportunity for staff to have direct contact and feedback from their team leader and call recording of information calls provides an opportunity for staff and team leaders to reflect on calls and identify areas for improvement. IOLs are encouraged to have strong working relationships with their team leaders and lawyers and feel comfortable asking them for guidance.
- Effective evaluation of the service. LawAccess NSW undertakes a regular Customer Satisfaction Survey. This survey is conducted over a two-week period with all staff asking customers to participate. While there is an element of self-selection, given the customers that choose to provide feedback are generally happy with the service, the results indicate a very high level of satisfaction.
- Keeping up to date with changes and developments in the law. LawAccess NSW as a frontline service has prioritised monitoring and communication of changes to ensure that staff and resources are kept up-to-date and are able to assist with topical or emerging issues that feature in the media. LawAccess NSW have dedicated staff that monitors changes in the law to ensure that they keep up to date and are able to respond quickly.
- Close interaction between the phone service and online service. The LawAccess NSW website (www.lawaccess.nsw.gov.au) provides valuable resources for information officers to use in providing assistance over the telephone to customers. Information officers can seamlessly refer customers to the website for more information and self-help guides. The technology also allows LawAccess NSW to email links to specific resources to customers through the CRM.
In 2011 the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW released its report, Legal Assistance by Video Conferencing: What is Known? (LJF review), which examined the use of video conferencing for the provision of legal assistance compared to telephone or in-person legal assistance.4 Following this the Commonwealth government launched the NBN Regional Legal Assistance Program which provided grant funding to trial National Broadband Network (NBN) based initiatives seeking to strengthen and increase legal assistance delivery in RRR areas. Various pilot projects were run as part of this program.
In 2012-2013 the Australian Pro Bono Centre, in partnership with Hobart Community Legal Service (HCLS), managed one of the funded pilot projects to provide legal advice using Skype to connect pro bono lawyers from DLA Piper with clients at HCLS’s outreach office in Sorell: see case study at 29.4.2. In 2015 the Centre released Pro bono legal services via video conferencing: Opportunities and Challenges5 (the Centre’s review), which examines the lessons learned from the pilot projects funded by the NBN Regional Legal Assistance Program, to inform the future use of technology to provide pro bono legal assistance in RRR areas of Australia.
Video conferencing has been used to provide pro bono legal assistance as a form of outreach to community organisations or other services in RRR areas that hosted a video conferencing facility. For example, the Chief Executive Officer of the Arts Law Centre of Australia, Robyn Ayres, said that the CLC had used Skype occasionally to facilitate communication between lawyers and clients in remote communities. It is usually the first contact the lawyer has with the client, but not the first contact the lawyer has with the matter. ‘The Arts Centre manager is usually aware of the matter and supports the client through the video call. Some of the clients may be very traditional and speak English as a second or third language. The solicitors at Arts Law only have positive things to say about the experience and feel it is a good way for clients to see who they are speaking to when there is no other alternative.’ Arts Law also delivers legal education webinars in partnership with Queensland organisation Flying Arts which are very popular and well attended, particularly by artists living in regional or remote areas.
This chapter focuses on the use of video-conferencing for the delivery of legal services directly to clients. However, video-conferencing has also been used to provide pro bono legal advice or assistance to lawyers working in a remote office of a legal firm or community legal service, using that agency’s internal video conferencing facilities (sometimes called a ‘hub and spoke’ model).6 For example, part of the HCLS pilot in Sorell involved the use of the NBN-based video-conferencing facilities to deliver training and mentoring support to the solicitors at HCLS. DLA Piper and HCLS found that with a high-speed internet connection, the training worked well, allowing for high quality sound and video and the instant opening of web pages as they were referred to in the training. ‘The speed and reliability of the connection allowed us to engage in an interactive session, with real-time two-way question and training, in addition to one way information provision.’ See case study at 29.4.2.
VIDEO-CONFERENCING: AT A GLANCE
Features of effective video conferencing
The obvious advantage of video conferencing is that it allows for the real-time ‘face-to-face’ interaction between lawyer and client.
In the case of the HCLS pilot project, from DLA Piper’s perspective, the use of the NBN considerably improved their lawyers’ ability to remotely advise clients when compared to the provision of advice by telephone, fax and post. The ability to take instructions from a client and to understand the real issues in a matter was greatly enhanced by being able to observe the body language and visual cues given by the client. The lawyers from DLA Piper reported feeling that the clients were put at greater ease when they could see their lawyer, and through the course of the interview were able to relax and provide full and candid instructions.
This experience is consistent with comments made by others consulted for this book:
The use of video conferencing is more useful than phone or email, as at least people’s faces and body language can be part seen. (CLC coordinator)
Video-conferencing is better than telephone advice as you can see the client. (Mid-sized law firm pro bono coordinator)
In the HCLS pilot project the DLA Piper lawyers were also greatly assisted in providing initial advice to clients by having the option of requesting that particular documents be scanned and emailed through to them during the course of the interview.
A number of the studies cited by the LJF review found there were cost savings made by using video-conferencing rather than in-person services, particularly in terms of the cost of travelling to remote locations. An example of this is North West Community Legal Centre (Devonport) (NSWCLC) which found that video conferencing limited the number of times that NWCLC staff had to travel between Devonport and Smithton in difficult weather conditions, which was positive in terms of occupational health and safety. The Centre’s review, however, identified costs that may weigh against those savings: for example, the cost of purchasing the infrastructure required for video conferencing, and of setting up and maintaining the equipment. These costs could also be exacerbated by the need for technical support in operating the service.7
The LJF review found that in contrast to the generally positive experience of lawyers with video conferencing, clients tended to focus more on issues of convenience and privacy, some preferring to speak to a lawyer by telephone from their own home rather than seeing a lawyer face-to-face by video-conferencing.8 This view was echoed in the consultations for this book.
Video-conferencing has not had its intended effect of bringing some of the benefits of face-to-face communication to telephone communication. In fact it does not add anything to telephone advice. There is a loss of the intimacy of telephone conversation, without gaining the intimacy of face-to-face conversation or any additional visual communication (the interface is a distraction and gets in the way of the exchange of information and building rapport). (Large law firm pro bono coordinator)
There were repeated technical problems. For example, in Broken Hill, video-conferencing was abandoned after three months as people would rather talk on the phone. This was not just due to technical problems. People felt video-conferencing did not add anything to the meeting with the lawyer so it was easier just to ring from home than go to the location where the video-conferencing was held. (Large law firm pro bono coordinator)
Even where video-conferencing was generally acceptable to clients and lawyers and quite functional, both groups preferred in-person meetings. Given the potentially high costs involved in setting up and maintaining a video-conferencing service, particularly where there is a need for technical support at both ends, low uptake may result in a higher cost per occasion of service.
Technical problems that diminished the effectiveness of communication were also commonly reported. These include the picture freezing, having a picture but no sound and vice versa, and the connection dropping out. At times these problems necessitated extra appointments (including by telephone) to complete the assistance.9 The LJF review referred to health sector studies that noted that the impact of technical difficulties on the quality of the interface may have less effect on the successful implementation of video conferencing than on how well practitioners and patients adapt to the technology and integrate it into routine use.10 These types of technical problems would, however, be expected to lessen over time with the NBN roll-out and technical improvements in video-conferencing technology.
The Centre’s review found that even where the NBN is available, some low income Australians, especially in RRR areas, may not have access to internet at home.11 These clients need to be able to access the service from a convenient location like a self-help centre or a community organisation. Where clients do have internet, they may need the presence or support from staff at the self-help centre of community organisation to help them understand and apply the legal information.
There is also a risk of inefficiencies resulting from the double-handing of matters.12 In the HCLS pilot, for example, this was the experience of both the DLA Piper solicitor and the HCLS solicitor supporting the client in Sorell. Given that the DLA Piper solicitors were relying on the clients to provide information necessary to progress the matter, solicitors were required at both ends of the video communication as the DLA Piper lawyer could not be physically present to assist the client with gathering or assessing these documents and information. Extra time was needed to pass instructions and take necessary actions through the two sets of lawyers involved. HCLS’s clients were also unlikely to have any access to email or fax and it could take time for them to produce relevant documents to the Sorell office in person.
FEATURES OF EFFECTIVE VIDEO-CONFERENCING
The LJF review concluded that if video-conferencing is considered for the provision of legal assistance services in RRR areas, particular attention should be paid to the following factors potentially affecting its uptake and ongoing use:
- the convenience, privacy and confidentiality of video-conferencing compared to other available modes of assistance;
- whether video-conferencing offers services or benefits that are not already available through existing legal services, including services available by telephone, such as access to specialist services or more timely assistance;
- the quality and reliability of the video-conferencing (ie drop outs, picture quality); and
- the willingness of clients, lawyers and the host service at the client end to use this form of technology for legal assistance.
In addition, if video-conferencing is used to facilitate outreach, then all the factors that affect the success of outreach services generally need to be taken into account — particularly as to supporting and building relationships with the intermediaries who are ‘problem noticers’, and who facilitate contact between clients and lawyers. Time spent by the community lawyers triaging matters, and time spent by the pro bono providers preparing for sessions in advance, will also make for more productive video-conferencing sessions.
The Centre’s review adds to these findings by noting the following features of effective video-conferencing:
- Support to understand the advice and take any follow up actions
The experience of those involved in the video conferencing pilot projects examined as part of the Centre’s review all point to the need to have a support person (for example the volunteer law students at the LawWorks clinic) who can not only help with the use of the technology but also help the client to understand the advice and take any follow up actions.
- Support with the use of technology for both service providers and clients
Staff of service providers (such as community legal centres and other community organisations, which will often be the first point of contact for clients) who are not comfortable with the technology will be less inclined to use it themselves and will not encourage clients to use it. They are likely to revert to using the phone. Planning to provide training in using the equipment and/or technical support will enhance its uptake.
- Limiting the use of video conferencing to one-off, rather than ongoing legal assistance
One-off assistance is much easier to manage in the context of remote service provision because there is no need for ongoing client management. The need for ongoing client support can lead to inefficiencies relating to double-handling of the matter by the pro bono lawyer providing assistance remotely and the local service provider who has physical access to the client.
- Funding/resources to set up and maintain the infrastructure for the service
There remain significant areas of Australia where the infrastructure does not exist to support the high speed internet connection required for quality video conferencing. Even where it does exist, community legal centres and other community organisations are unlikely to have the funds required to purchase the hardware and meet the ongoing costs of technical support.
In the consultations one CLC coordinator highlighted the need to carefully assess matters and what needs to be done before deciding to use video conferencing, and suggested that video technology should only be used for issues that need an in depth face-to-face interview. ‘If an issue can be dealt with over the phone, it is preferable to use the phone. Clients don’t like being dragged in to a host organisation for a one-minute simple issue that could have been dealt with over the phone. Often clients will be difficult to track down and may not turn up to a video meeting if they do not think that it is serious enough to need a face-to-face meeting.’
Pro bono assistance can take the form of helping to develop or maintain a website that provides legal education or information. The assistance might include preparing content for web pages, fact sheets, instructional videos or information guides.
For example, the firm might prepare a first draft of the material, or alternatively check a first draft for accuracy.
Some CLCs and other community organisations provide self-help resources on their websites. The Financial Rights Legal Centre’s website, for example, provides a suite of sample letters which can be used to write to creditors and government agencies. The letters as designed to be used in conjunction with a set of fact sheets on associated topics.
There may be opportunities for firms to provide pro bono assistance (for example, drafting sample letters) to support such initiatives.
If the pro bono provider has the relevant expertise, drafting and checking content for websites is a relatively easy way to provide pro bono assistance that can reach a broad audience. The skills required to assist with website development and maintenance can broaden the pool of people at firms who can be involved in pro bono work.
Some firms are interested in using their non-legal staff to do pro bono work to encourage a firm-wide contribution eg IT staff help with the website and podcasts. (PBRO manager)
Community legal education materials that are made available online via a website have the potential to reach many more people than individual casework and can be a strategic use of pro bono resources for NFPs (where there is a match between the NFPs need and the firms expertise). (PBRO manager)
One of the challenges in providing web-based legal information resources is the need to keep the content current. The Director of the National Children’s and Youth Law Centre (NCYLC), Matthew Keeley, suggests that linking to other well resourced services, such as the Legal Information Access Centre (http://www.legalanswers.sl.nsw.gov.au/about/liac/index.html) might be helpful.
Features that make it effective
A website will only be successful if it can be found and is used, so promotion of the website service is vital. NCYLC staff visit schools to talk about sexting, cyberbullying and online law and seek input from young people on law reform. It also receives support from people who work with young people (eg legal studies teachers who tell students about the website). NCYLC also has a strong web presence. ‘Being a National Centre means that it often ranks higher than other CLCs would in a Google search.’
Many legal assistance services accept requests for assistance by email. Only a few of those consulted, however, respond with legal advice by email, and only in limited circumstances, preferring to call the person back and discuss the matter by telephone or make an appointment to see the client in person. The Chief Executive Officer at the Arts Law Centre of Australia, Robyn Ayres, explained that the CLC accepts inquiries online, but follows up by having a volunteer take instructions over the phone, then referring the matter via the usual procedures for their telephone advice service (see case study at 19.5.2). ‘Legal advice will only be emailed by Arts Law if the client has a hearing impairment or there is another compelling reason to provide the advice by email.’
EMAIL: AT A GLANCE
Features of effective email advice
Receiving requests for assistance by email can actually make the intake and data collection process easier for the organisation accepting the request. Robyn Ayres at the Arts Law Centre of Australia finds that having clients fill in an online form streamlines the process of taking instructions and primary instructions will be taken by telephone and this service is (although the Centre’s ability to provide the best advice always made available to cater for those who are not comfortable filling in an online form, especially if they have low literacy skills or English is a second language).
The Executive Director of the National Children’s and Youth Law Centre, Matthew Keeley, explained that they receive requests for assistance using their LawMail service via a portal that asks the young person to enter fields, which makes data collection much easier for the CLC. He also makes the point that written advice is highly accountable.
Much of the reluctance to broaden the use of email as a model for providing pro bono legal assistance arises from concern about quality control and risk management, especially as that the lawyer providing the advice cannot gauge the reaction of the client and whether they have understood the advice. For example, Robyn Ayres explained that Arts Law is reluctant to use email to provide legal advice due to risk management issues, and the fact that the advice tends to become very general when there is a lack of context and incomplete instructions. ‘The email essentially becomes more like a fact sheet.’
There is a risk that email advice can easily be altered to change or misrepresent the advice. Some lawyers prefer to send advice in a PDF attachment rather than text in an email. (CLC manager)
Others were concerned about the time-consuming nature of providing advice in a written form rather than on the phone or in person, and the ease and accessibility of email leading to an ‘opening of the floodgates’ without the necessary resources to meet the demand.
FEATURES OF EFFECTIVE EMAIL ADVICE
To address the risk that advice is based on incomplete instructions, it is important to be explicit about the assumptions being made. Matthew Keeley said that NCYLC always preface email advice by saying that it is preliminary information and is based on assumptions that have to be made because there are usually incomplete instructions provided in the email requesting assistance. The advice also states the assumptions that have been made and tells the client that if the assumptions are incorrect then they need to contact NCYLC again for further advice.
26.11 CASE STUDY
26.11.1 Case study: LawAccess NSW
Several years ago, LawAccess NSW trialled responding to requests for advice that were received by email (see also case study on LawAccess telephone advice service at 26.7.3). The practice was discontinued due to the risks associated with providing advice in response to instructions that were often incomplete and the fact that requests were infrequent.
Other challenges with the provision of email advice were:
- the time delay between receiving requests for assistance and responding (and vice versa) and the effect of the time delay on the quality of the communication and advice provided (such as any time limitations that might apply);
- compared to phone communication, there were even less clues for the information/advice provider about whether the customer had understood the information/advice and less scope for providing support to the customer (which was especially concerning where they we receiving advice they may not like); and
- providing email responses to requests for advice was very time-consuming, especially if a number of assumptions needed to be addressed due to incomplete instructions from the client.
If a customer emailed LawAccess for assistance, they were asked to call the service. LawAccess provided advice in writing on rare occasions where there were special circumstances (for example, where the client was deaf).
The number of requests that LawAccess received for assistance by email did not indicated a strong demand for that service, but LawAccess is flexible and open to revisiting the idea if the need is demonstrated.
See also the case study on the email advice service offered by the National Children’s and Youth Law Centre at 26.5.1.
Australian Pro Bono Centre, Australian Pro Bono Manual (3rd edition), LexisNexis, Sydney, 1.14.2 Dealing with particular client needs.
1 Law and Justice Foundation, Legal Assistance by video conferencing: what is known? (Paper No 15, 2011), at http://www.lawfoundation.net.au/ljf/site/articleIDs/B0A936D88AF64726CA25796600008A3A/$file/JI15_Videoconferencing_web.pdf.
2 S Wise, ‘Internet connectivity among people experiencing poverty and deprivation’, Australian Journal of Telecommunications and Digital Economy, vol 2 no 3, 2014, p 49.2. Centre for Social Impact, Swinburn University of Technology, ‘Measuring Australia’s Digital Divide: The Australian Digital Inclusion Index 2016’, August 2016, p 18.
3 For example, in the month of November 2015 the CRM indicated that 30.1% (511 calls) were marked urgent and 31.6% were closed on the same day as the information officer logged them.
4 Law and Justice Foundation, Legal Assistance by video conferencing: what is known? (2011) p 2, http://www.lawfoundation.net.au/ljf/site/articleIDs/B0A936D88AF64726CA25796600008A3A/$file/JI15_Videoconferencing_web.pdf.
5 Australian Pro Bono Centre, Pro bono legal services via video conferencing: Opportunities and challenges (2015), http://probonocentre.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/ProBonoLegalServicesViaVideoConferencing-OpportunitiesAndChallenges040615.pdf.
6 Law and Justice Foundation, Legal Assistance by video conferencing: what is known?, above n 1, p 10. http://www.lawfoundation.net.au/ljf/site/articleIDs/B0A936D88AF64726CA25796600008A3A/$file/JI15_Videoconferencing_web.pdf
7 Australian Pro Bono Centre, Pro bono legal services via video conferencing: Opportunities and challenges, above n 2, p 14.
8 Law and Justice Foundation, Legal Assistance by video conferencing: what is known?, above n 1, p 2. http://www.lawfoundation.net.au/ljf/site/articleIDs/B0A936D88AF64726CA25796600008A3A/$file/JI15_Videoconferencing_web.pdf
9 Law and Justice Foundation, Legal Assistance by video conferencing: what is known?, above n 1, p 12. http://www.lawfoundation.net.au/ljf/site/articleIDs/B0A936D88AF64726CA25796600008A3A/$file/JI15_Videoconferencing_web.pdf
10 Law and Justice Foundation, Legal Assistance by video conferencing: what is known?, above n 1, p 14. http://www.lawfoundation.net.au/ljf/site/articleIDs/B0A936D88AF64726CA25796600008A3A/$file/JI15_Videoconferencing_web.pdf
11 Australian Pro Bono Centre, Pro bono legal services via video conferencing: Opportunities and challenges, above n 2, p 13.
12 Australian Pro Bono Centre, Pro bono legal services via video conferencing: Opportunities and challenges, above n 2, p 17.