My research identified four main themes/categories related to local knowledge and place:
•geographical knowledge of the local area;
•familiarity with local practices and procedures;
•relationships with allies and opponents; and
Geographical knowledge: Knowledge of local geography assisted face-to-face advisers with their casework. Local knowledge contributed to face-to-face advisers’ ability to assess clients and their cases, for example, in relation to housing conditions: ‘[I]f [clients] say they live in a particular block, and there’s problems with something or other, I’ll think, “Ah, yeah, that sounds about right.”’
Familiarity with local practices and procedures: Face-to-face practitioners were able to guide clients more effectively from the outset, because of their awareness of how systems operated locally. Telephone advisers lacked this detailed knowledge and often had to start from scratch with each case: ‘[E]ach council has a different procedure, so we have to sort of look up each procedure or find out each procedure, so it just takes that bit longer for us as well.’
Relationships with allies and opponents: For face-to-face advisers, their working relationships with local allies (in the form of advice agencies and support services) were a significant benefit of local knowledge. Local networks and relationships with allies enabled legal services to extend the advice and practical support available to their clients, who often have multiple problems.
In addition, face-to-face advisers were often able to achieve more for their clients because of their working relationships with their opponents. These ongoing relationships meant they were able to negotiate more effectively with opponents. This enabled them to reach agreements that were beneficial to their clients, such as agreeing adjournments or resolving homelessness matters without having to resort to the courts: ‘I know exactly who to send [a letter before claim] to and just do the threat at the bottom … and you’re not lying and they know you’re not lying and it’s all sorted.’
Court representation: Representing clients at court was a powerful example of how local knowledge, relationships and physical presence combined to help face-to-face advisers prevent clients from losing their homes: ‘I did the duty scheme for years … They [the landlord] were going to request an outright order … They’d have got it if the client hadn’t turned up, they’d have got it if the client had gone in on their own.’ Face-to-face practitioners also explained how their interaction with opponents could result in more favourable outcomes for their clients: ‘There is a lot of respect … between us … No matter how bad the arrears are, if I say “[We] are willing to take on this case and help this client”, they back off.’
Telephone advisers recognised the value of local knowledge but tended to ascribe it to providing clients with non-legal support, the earlier information-gathering aspects of the case or familiarity with the judge’s approach. They were less likely to be aware of the scope for relationships with opponents to influence positive case outcomes. This suggests that telephone advisers may be developing a more limited understanding of casework, one that does not recognise the importance of relational factors in achieving positive outcomes for clients.
Overall, the local knowledge available to lawyers and advisers providing face-to-face casework and representation in housing and homelessness cases continues to have very real relevance and beneficial practical impacts for legal aid clients.