How a London legal advice centre coped during lockdown

Elaine Vignoli, chief executive officer of the South Westminster Legal Advice Centre, discusses how lockdown hit as their advice centre was moving and what happened next.

Two people wearing face masks having a socially distanced meeting

The South Westminster Legal Advice Centre has been operating since 1998, until recently from our own shop on Vauxhall Bridge Road near Victoria train station in London. We are a fully volunteer-based charity, with six trustees and a network of impressive volunteer lawyers.

Lockdown hit as our advice centre was moving

Until March 2020, we opened two evenings per week, from 5pm until 9pm, and advised approximately 40 clients per week. It was not unusual for clients sometimes having to wait hours before seeing a lawyer.

We were told in autumn 2019 that our shop was to be redeveloped and we found spacious new premises nearby. The movers were booked for Sunday 22 March - the day before full lockdown was announced.

The movers came, but when we arrived at our new home the landlord had already closed the premises. We had to pile our things in the basement (they are still there).

We were organised only to give face-to-face advice

We were not prepared for this: one, we were organised only to give face-to-face advice, and two, we were paper-based, like most other advice centres, I have learned.

It was clear that we needed to operate virtually. Our volunteers were keen, and their enthusiasm and ideas have been key. LawWorks, a charity committed to enabling access to justice through free legal advice, were invaluable in terms of general guidance and connecting us with other law centres, who gave us tips on operating virtually. It gave us comfort to know that many other legal centres were shutting too, in that we were doing the right thing.

We turned to Intralinks, a basic case management system possibly more akin to a document storage service. Its main attribute has been its simplicity; we have not needed to spend hours providing tutorials to our lawyers, something they are probably even more grateful for than we are. All volunteers log in to Intralinks from home. I put a new case on Intralinks, then allocate it to a volunteer via email.

Probate and employment enquiries increased

The number of enquiries we received during lockdown were initially low; we gathered there was a feeling amongst clients that they would wait for things to blow over, and then come and visit us in person. Enquiries are gathering pace and we now assist at least 20 people per week. During lockdown, perhaps not surprisingly, probate and employment enquiries have increased.

How we went virtual

Operating remotely has been a difficult process to get to grips with because it’s required so much change. The day-to-day running of our advice centre is organised by three of our six trustees (myself included). We had to:

  • give much consideration to security and safety and finding a way of operating without the personal details of our volunteers being disclosed (telephone numbers and email addresses)
  • update our insurers
  • consider what our new policies and procedures would be

We decided to operate using emails and telephone calls, with many boundaries in place, and an email account solely for the use of volunteers to assist with protecting their personal details.

Many clients do not have a smartphone or a computer

When we operated from our Vauxhall Bridge Road centre, a client could attend with documents which, together with a brief chat, would enable us quickly to ascertain the background to their case. Operating remotely has slowed this process considerably. Email exchanges take much longer and clients often have difficulty choosing or identifying the pertinent documents to send. Things are complicated further if clients are not technologically aware or indeed unable to afford a laptop or smartphone (it is not an easy feat to supply them).

Access to justice

Our client base is usually on a very low income and many do not have access to these luxuries. It can be a very frustrating process, requiring huge amounts of patience, kindness, understanding, excellent communication skills, an ability to use deduction skills to understand what the client is saying, and an ability to explain matters without the use of legal jargon as clients often do not understand legal terminology.

Once the groundwork has been completed, our lawyers can then press ahead with advising and drafting any necessary documents. We ceased using post; we didn’t think it was safe due to risk of infection, and we do not have the resources to send someone to our address to collect post. Having Intralinks in this respect is hugely helpful; half-completed documents can be stored for later amendments, or for checking by the supervising solicitor. All documents can be labelled, allowing lawyers to more quickly find what they are looking for. In addition, lawyers can see each other’s files and learn and develop from each other.

The future

The process of advising remotely is more time-consuming, but we have become paperless, which is a huge step forward with many advantages.

We spent March and April handling the move and the aftermath, dealing with utility companies, cleaning the new premises, and frankly just catching our breath. By May, we felt able to try to start providing a remote service.

Re-opening

We’ve now decided to reopen our face-to-face clinics. As I’ve said, many clients don’t have access to technology or are uncomfortable with it. Often, there are literacy or language barriers too. Contacting us remotely can be very challenging and quite apart from that, some cases are best handled face to face.

We plan to provide laptops at our premises from which clients can speak to our lawyers over Skype, since this can increase the number of available volunteers on any night. We are starting with an appointments-only system limited to 10 clients per clinic and will see how it goes.

I believe our virtual service will become permanent. It is proving a very useful addition.

This is a transformative time. There is still much to figure out, and I am optimistic that we’ll increase our efficiency and, most importantly, the number of clients we help, who would otherwise have no access to justice.

Volunteering

Volunteering provides valuable work experience, as well as exposure to practice areas such as employment, family, litigation, housing, landlord and tenant, probate, and appeals. Our volunteers are passionate about providing access to justice to those unable to pay, and to assist some of the most vulnerable members of the community.

We are always keen to recruit more volunteers, both lawyers and anyone with experience of setting up and running case management systems. Send a brief email to swlac@live.com.


Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.