LAG launches online employment law advice program
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Marc Bloomfield
This month (February 2019), LAG dips its toe into the world of online legal advice services with the launch of its new service, MyPay London. We intend to introduce a national version of the program later in the year.
At the outset, it’s important to state that LAG is not repositioning itself as a charity providing direct services to the public. Rather, we believe that developing advice programs to assist lawyers and advisers is an innovation that is in keeping with our mission to disseminate information about the law. Like our handbooks and other publications, we hope lawyers and advisers will use the program in their work.
High demand for advice
There is a high demand for employment law advice, but LASPO removed it from the scope of legal aid aside from in discrimination cases (even then, advice is only available via the telephone gateway, and it is arguable whether that service is working – see March 2018 Legal Action 4). Cuts to local services have also reduced the availability of free advice to the public from charities such as Citizen Advice and Law Centres. It is difficult, particularly with advice related to pay issues, to provide services on a commercial basis, as while problems such as the non-payment of wages can have a big impact on employees, the sums at stake are often small and most people on average or below-average pay are unlikely to be able to afford to turn to a solicitor for help.
LAG’s 2012 national opinion poll research on publicly funded legal services (Social welfare law: what the public wants from civil legal aid, March 2012) reflected the general public’s increasing anxiety over their rights at work, and this is most significant among the lowest paid. According to more recent research, 2m employees are missing out on £3bn a year in wages and unpaid holiday that are illegally withheld by their employers (Unpaid Britain: wage default in the British labour market, Trust for London/Middlesex University, November 2017).
Focus groups
It is now three years since we first started to develop this project. Initially, LAG approached an app producer for advice, as we believed this would be the most accessible way of providing the service. We also felt that it would eventually provide some revenue, as we were very conscious from the advice we had received that programs need constant updating and maintenance, and this requires cash. After guidance from Comic Relief, which has been at the forefront of supporting tech projects for charitable purposes, we decided to undertake some testing of the concept on end-users before we committed ourselves to development.
The main funder of the project,1MyPay London has also been funded by the Jomati Foundation and the Clifford Chance Foundation. Trust for London, paid for the focus group research, and the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), which represents numerous workers in contracted-out services such as cleaners and others in low-paid occupations, assisted.
Valuable insights were gleaned from the research with the IWGB members, the most important of which was that they firmly shot the idea of an app down in flames: they simply would not use it as they generally access the internet on free hotspots and never use apps. With this in mind we changed our plans and went ahead with a web-based service.
Building the program
After drawing up a project plan based on the feedback from the potential end-users, we brought together lawyers from the Free Representation Unit (FRU) with the software developers Ferret Information Systems and commenced the process of converting employment law into computer code. The original concept was to build a program to assist people, who would then be able to contact FRU for support if they remained unable to resolve their problems.
However, while R (Unison) v Lord Chancellor [2017] UKSC 51 case was a welcome development in access to justice for workers and employees generally, it had an unfortunate consequence for the MyPay project, as it meant FRU would no longer have the spare capacity it had anticipated to advise the public on pay matters. We therefore have to acknowledge at the outset that MyPay’s main weakness as a stand-alone product is that it does not offer online, telephone or face-to-face advice to users. Just to reiterate, though, LAG does not see itself as a service provider directly to the public, and we do believe there is potential for the program to be licensed to partners such as law firms, advice services and trade unions, which could potentially provide support for end-users as part of their own services.
Using MyPay
MyPay is accessed via its website, which is the shop window for what we believe is the innovative part of the project: the links to decision-tree programs that take users through a series of questions to resolve their pay problems. Potential partners who would license the decision-tree programs from LAG would be able to use their own branding on these, which could be accessed through their own web pages.
We hope the program will be widely used in assisting workers and employees who have problems with pay. Feedback from users will be of great value in improving it. We are also aware, such is the nature of software development, that there will be glitches with the program and your feedback will be invaluable in identifying these so they can be corrected.
 
1     MyPay London has also been funded by the Jomati Foundation and the Clifford Chance Foundation»

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LAG
A national, independent charity, promoting equal access to justice for all members of society who are socially, economically or otherwise...