Friday, 29 August 2014

Pro bono legal help in RRR areas – is video conferencing the answer?

National Pro Bono Resource Centre
Getting services out to disadvantaged people in rural, regional and remote (RRR) areas is difficult, and legal services are certainly no exception. With ratios of up to one lawyer to 3,000 people in RRR Australia and the limited availability of pro bono legal assistance, any opportunity to improve access to justice in RRR areas is welcome.

Sheer distance has made it difficult to bring pro bono resources out to ‘the bush’, but technology might provide the answer. The proposed roll out the National Broadband Network (NBN) in Australia raised hopes that video conferencing could be the solution to overcoming these barriers.

Picture this. A disadvantaged person walks into a community legal centre. A lawyer awaits them, sitting behind their desk. They exchange greetings, the client explains their situation and the lawyer offers free legal advice on the matter. The only thing is, they are hundreds of kilometres apart.

Nicola Roxon at the launch of the service

Video conferencing has the potential to make scenarios like this possible – face-to-face consultations between disadvantaged clients in RRR areas and solicitors from well-resourced firms in major cities, with the help of a local service provider and a couple of computers. It seems like a great solution and, best of all, the lawyer doesn’t even need to leave their seat! But does it work?

Pro bono legal assistance by video conferencing has already been trialled with some success in the US and UK. However, a series of government funded pilot projects in Australia have revealed that it’s not quite as simple as the scenario described above.

The Australian pilot projects: some assumptions and lessons learnt

The National Pro Bono Resource Centre (NPBRC) has produced an article which brings together all the lessons learned from the various Australian pilot projects funded by the previous Labor government’s NBN Regional Legal Assistance Program. NPBRC managed one of the pilot projects in partnership with global law firm DLA Piper and the Hobart Community Legal Centre (HCLS). The project involved using Skype to connect disadvantaged clients from Sorell, in rural Tasmania, with solicitors at DLA Piper’s Melbourne office. The HCLS solicitors also received mentoring assistance and training sessions from DLA Piper via Skype.

Team members from NPBRC, HCLS and DLA Piper at the Sorrell outreach service
National Pro Bono Resource Centre

Before the project commenced, the major assumption was that video conferencing would save time and costs that are usually associated with providing in-person legal advice in RRR areas. However, this was not necessarily the case. In one instance, double handling was experienced between the DLA Piper and HCLS solicitors because both were involved in gathering documents to assist a client. Double handling problems are a product of working remotely, particularly where disadvantaged clients need some in-person support. However, with careful planning, especially determining the party who has carriage of the matter at the outset, these inefficiencies could be minimised.

Another assumption was that clients would be unfamiliar with the video conferencing technology or find it difficult to use. In fact, a pilot project run by Welfare Rights Centre SA (WRCSA) reported that challenges related to a lack of familiarity were largely experienced by the service provider rather than the client. While clients were generally happy to continue using video conferencing once they had started, local service providers continued to be reluctant and were unlikely to be able to support clients’ use of it. 

NPBRC also found that solicitors at HCLS expressed discomfort with Skype when seeking mentoring assistance and preferred to revert to phone calls which they felt would be “less of an imposition” from the DLA Piper solicitors’ perspective. Their reluctance to use the video conferencing technology was despite NPBRC’s support with installing the software and in conducting practice video calls between Sorell and Sydney. These situations demonstrate the importance of service provider confidence with video technology to the success of any video conferencing service.

In terms of what worked well, the greatest benefit in NPBRC’s pilot project came from the ongoing mentoring assistance, which has allowed the HCLS solicitors to take on matters with more confidence knowing that DLA Piper’s expertise is just a Skype call away. Video conferencing has significant potential to increase access to legal resources, as well as training and workshops that assist more than one person at a time and in multiple locations.

Another unexpected benefit discovered in Redfern Legal Centre’s pilot project was the use of video conferencing to provide interpreting services to clients, where the interpreter could be connected via video from a third location.

Concluding remarks
The pilot projects have revealed that there are many factors that need to be considered to ensure pro bono legal services using video conferencing run effectively and efficiently. These include the availability of infrastructure, funding, training for local service providers and on-ground support for clients. Although video conferencing in itself is no silver bullet for access to justice in RRR areas, there are models that can use this technology to provide greater access to pro bono legal assistance.

So, is video conferencing the answer? Not yet. But with the right mix of planning, training and support, it certainly has potential.

This post is adapted from an article originally prepared by the National Pro Bono Resource Centre.

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