By the Alberta Law Foundation
The Alberta Law Foundation published the report Remote Legal Services to Low-income Albertans in July 2021. The findings were based on feedback from justice stakeholders in Canada and the United States and extensive online research about challenges and best practices in remote legal service delivery to low-income clients. Below are some highlights.
Justice stakeholders have identified silver linings of the transition to remote service delivery during the pandemic. Many said that the pandemic has propelled the justice system into a long-awaited modernization. Remote proceedings for procedural, uncontested, shorter and less complex matters work well. Moreover, remote legal service delivery has increased reach to rural and remote communities.
Individuals from the most marginalized groups have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Their daily challenges and legal problems have dramatically worsened. Legal service providers said the most common legal issues for low-income Albertans during the pandemic are landlord and tenant disputes, family violence, employment and benefits.
Lack of internet, suitable device and tech proficiency pose significant barriers to access to remote legal services for marginalized individuals. Vulnerable and multi-barriered clients still need in-person assistance. The use of technology also brought adverse and unintended effects on judicial independence and the open courts principle.
Legal service providers found that gathering client documents and having meetings over the phone or video takes longer than in person. Clients are also slower to follow the steps prescribed at the legal advice session.
Lack of in-house technical staff was noted as a barrier to remote service delivery. Legal service providers also said that building relationships and trust with clients and community agencies is much harder remotely. Additionally, managing volunteers at a physical distance can make communication, supervision, and support more difficult. Those working with restorative justice programs mentioned that the programs are less effective in an online environment.
Courts must consider ways to mitigate the adverse effects of using technology. Reports from Canada and the United Stated recommend consulting with self-represented litigants to determine the impact of new measures, practices and technology on their needs, concerns, safety and security. Other recommendations include providing human support for the use of technology and developing robust practices and procedures to safeguard sensitive data and security of videoconferencing.
Lawyers working with low-income clients shared that following up with clients at each stage, summarizing what was discussed and next steps, is helpful. Also, document drafting services has been shown to be valuable to self-represented clients getting remote legal help.
Collaborative partnerships with community-based organizations were identified as a key to successful remote legal service delivery programs and in-person services to remote communities, both prior to and during the pandemic.
There are numerous technology tools that can be used in remote legal service delivery - it is best to start by reflecting on your service goals and audience. Tech tools and strategies can be helpful or impede service delivery, depending on your audience and partners. Phone is still the best choice when dealing with clients with limited access to internet and technology.