Authors:James Sandbach
Last updated:2023-09-18
Collaboration during COVID-19: legal and advice sector roundtable
Marc Bloomfield
Description: COVID-19 (BlackJack3D - iStock)
James Sandbach reports on a key cross-sector initiative.
Starting this piece with a statement of the obvious, the massive social and economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has presented huge challenges for the legal and advice sectors, and for access to justice. The unprecedented public health crisis, lockdown measures, economic slowdown and global impact of COVID-19 inevitably have short- and long-term consequences for legal needs, with a wide range of social and legal issues presenting for people in their everyday lives. No less a challenge has been the operational and sustainability impacts for organisations working within the access to justice space and in the wider advice sector community.
With legal and advice organisations having to rapidly implement major changes to their delivery models, systems and practices, a valuable and collaborative online forum has emerged, bringing together organisations from the voluntary and legal sectors, including funders, with a common purpose to discuss and address the issues, challenges and legal needs raised by the crisis. Over 40 people have taken part to date, including senior representatives from The Law Society, The Bar Council, the UK Collaborative Plan for Pro Bono, AdviceUK, Advocate, LawWorks, Pro Bono Community, Litigant in Person Support Strategy and Litigant in Person Network, Access to Justice Foundation (ATJF), London Legal Support Trust, LAG and other charities previously based at the National Pro Bono Centre, the Law Centres Network, Citizens Advice, Age UK, JUSTICE, Public Law Project, Legal Aid Practitioners Group, Advice Services Alliance, Shelter, Support Through Court, Law for Life, Mencap, Child Poverty Action Group, Employment Legal Advice Network (ELAN), Equally Ours, the Clinical Legal Education Organisation, Rightsnet and The Legal Education Foundation.
Meeting at least monthly, under the Chatham House Rule and spawning a number of subgroups, the roundtable has provided an important forum for information exchange, learning and cross-sector working, and has been a valuable nexus for communicating and sharing concerns and issues with statutory agencies, including the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), the Legal Services Board (LSB), HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS), the Legal Aid Agency and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). The overarching common aim for the participating organisations and agencies is:
Improving access to justice for those without means and the most vulnerable, through the improved sustainability and effectiveness of legal and advice organisations, working collaboratively, to deliver effective services to meet demand, address underlying legal needs and the policy drivers of those needs.
The stated purpose for the roundtable is that it:
… brings together legal and advice organisations and representative bodies from the voluntary and legal sectors, providing a collective breadth of update and perspective not available elsewhere. It helps define our shared priorities and strategy and brings some of the existing work and resources together, shining a light on key issues and their potential resolutions. Articulating urgent issues, identifying potential solutions and supporting the sector to respond to those needs collectively is our key ‘anchor’ for both the roundtable and its subgroups.
Following from this purpose, the principal objectives and terms of reference of the roundtable are:
to identify legal needs arising from the pandemic;
to monitor and review the impact, considering and highlighting issues and challenges, for providers of legal information, support, advice and representation;
to consider responses and recommendations to help address the above needs, including potential policy recommendations (to government and others);
to inform and support the mobilisation and coordination of the advice sector, legal aid, charities, volunteer lawyers and legal professionals, for people with legal and advice needs; and
as part of that mobilisation, to encourage sector-wide collaborations, initiatives and technology and data-driven solutions – sharing information, resources and learning.
The roundtable has been co-chaired by LAG interim director Carol Storer and the Hon Mr Justice Knowles, and has been guided and supported by a steering group meeting weekly. It has been legal- and advice-sector led, responding to issues the sector highlights, and at all times working collaboratively. ‘Task and finish’ subgroups have met intermittently, focusing on and progressing actions on key themes raised by the roundtable on sustainability, policy issues and deployment of resources. The following is a month-to-month summary of the roundtable’s activities to date:
Two meetings were held in March (on the 24th and the 31st of the month) as lockdown hit. Initially, to share and review key government announcements and policy interventions so far, and to identify how the sector could best respond and deliver and how it could reach people in difficult times, and to share thoughts about how the different organisations could work together and help each other and those in need. An advice funders network, chaired by the ATJF, reported that a meeting was taking place to coordinate emergency funding responses. Key networks were able to share their responses to priority needs and how they were addressing operational challenges, including premises issues and digital access. Subgroups were formed to share and take forward thoughts on policy, online platforms for collaboration and service development, and longer-term sustainability strategies for the sector.
The subgroups reported back on key challenges and workstreams, and MoJ officials participated to hear thoughts and updates from the sector, including messages around demand and need, the urgent funding requirements to ensure service continuity, and the operational and data challenges of interacting with the justice system under lockdown. The MoJ emphasised its objective of continuing to ensure access to justice by involving all parts of the system, including the advice sector, and reported how it was working collaboratively with the funders network to offer some immediate solutions for the sector.
Updates from the sector and funder bodies indicated how quickly things had moved on, with new platforms coming online or in development (including Free Legal Answers, a new Pro Bono Portal with Justice Connect, the Collaborate Plan platform and others) and initiatives that had progressed, such as ELAN’s appointment of a response coordinator with South West London Law Centres. Other websites whether sector-facing (Rightsnet, Litigant in Person Network) or public-facing (Advicenow), also reported how they had significantly enhanced their content. Funders reported that the Community Justice Fund, supported by the MoJ and hosted and administered by the ATJF, was taking shape with a funding round focused on specialist agencies, and that London Funders’ London Community Response had made grants of over £10m. While these funding initiatives were welcome, the particular needs of small private practice firms in the legal aid market were clearly communicated back to the MoJ. Citizens Advice and Shelter shared their data insights from across their networks. Key policy issues were also flagged, highlighting that while many of the interventions and mitigations introduced (eg, the stay on possession proceedings) were welcome, they needed to be longer-term in scope and duration.
Cross-sector updates included: the decision not to proceed with the physical move of the National Pro Bono Centre but to continue the Centre virtually; the launch of the ELAN Employment Mediation Scheme; the UK Collaborative Plan for Pro Bono taskforce group; the LawWorks virtual Clinics Network Conference; and the sustainability subgroups landscape paper. There was an in-depth discussion with the MoJ and the LSB on ‘changing legal needs in society resulting from COVID-19’, at which the latter demonstrated its new legal needs dashboard, and issues of digital access and exclusion were flagged, including the emerging issue of ‘disappeared’ clients. Issues around possession claims were raised in light of the future of the stay on such proceedings, the Civil Justice Council’s cross-sector working group on housing possession claims, and related policy issues. The implications of the Civil Justice Council’s rapid review, by Dr Natalie Byrom, Sarah Beardon and Dr Abby Kendrick, on the impact of COVID-19 on civil courts1The impact of COVID-19 measures on the civil justice system, May 2020. were also considered.
The roundtable looked at the ongoing and forthcoming policy challenges and responses, from welfare rights to debt, employment, consumer, family justice and the impact on the courts system. On 1 July, Carol Storer, James Sandbach and Ben Hoare Bell partner Cris McCurley had given evidence to the House of Lords Constitution Committee about the justice impact, and from this, concerns were raised about recent initiatives such as extended sitting hours. On housing matters, the extension of the stay on possession claims was welcomed but policy points about tenancy protection were highlighted. Issues of data sharing across the sector and with the MoJ were discussed. A particular focus for the meeting was given over to considering equality, diversity and inclusion challenges, with the roundtable engaging with the EHRC and Equally Ours on the key challenges of engaging with marginalised and excluded communities, reconnecting with ‘disappeared’ clients and addressing digital exclusion issues. A ‘life after lockdown’ straw poll was taken to gauge sector-wide thinking about planning on returning to workplaces and the delivery of face-to-face services.
A focus this month was the MoJ consulting with the sector and sharing its work on the upcoming Comprehensive Spending Review, and workstreams on Civil Legal Aid Long-Term Sustainability, the Legal Support Action Plan,2Legal support: the way ahead, CP 40, MoJ, February 2019. the criminal legal aid review, the means test review, and the future of civil legal aid. The MoJ also shared its insights and thinking on the changing ways in which people are accessing help and legal support and engaging with systems, and on digital access issues, as did HMCTS and the Good Things Foundation. This again led to further discussion about maximising the use of digital tools, especially for more digitally capable users, while minimising digital exclusion risks by, for example, working with intermediaries and community groups. Sector bodies welcomed the MoJ’s collaborative approach but stressed the importance of clear timelines and consultation mechanisms, including the need to address the most immediate challenges, for example, with legal aid practices facing imminent threats to their survival.
The roundtable had a catch-up on policy matters, including supporting a consensus statement about the sector’s thinking on housing possession proceedings (now that the extended blanket stay on proceedings was coming to an end). The main theme of the agenda, though, was sustainability, and following presentations, this issue was discussed from management, practitioner and operational perspectives, and the funders network also shared their thinking on the matter. A common theme was that, yes, more funding was needed both for ongoing running costs and to ensure the sustainability of the sector, especially legal aid practices and community advice organisations, but that it needed to be appropriately future-focused on development of workforce skills, IT infrastructure and innovation in the digital space, as well as the capacity of managers/leaders to grow and be able to positively impact the external environment (eg, partnerships, policy etc).
Legal Action readers will know better than most that there has never been an easy time for our sector, even under the far more generous pre-LASPO3Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. and pre-austerity regime, and that it has often been difficult for the sector to speak with one voice. Collaboration has always been a constant but can, at times, be challenging. Digital technologies and innovations can offer solutions but may not provide a panacea. Within the uniquely difficult context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the roundtable has, with the benefit of a high degree of informality, networking and collaboration, been able to take small steps to strengthen the sector’s collective voice and response.
2     Legal support: the way ahead, CP 40, MoJ, February 2019. »
3     Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. »