Head of Nottingham Law School Legal Advice Centre Laura Pinkney reflects on the consequences of the pandemic
March 2020 feels like a lifetime ago. At that time, I don’t think any of us could envisage how long lockdown, and subsequent restrictions, would last or how far reaching the consequences would be.
Our main priority at that time was to continue to operate the service on a fully remote basis. Fortunately, we had already adopted a flexible working approach. All our staff had the capability to work remotely when client and supervisory commitments allowed. The biggest challenge was enabling students to continue volunteering as, pre-lockdown, they were only permitted to undertake client work when physically present in the Centre. We had to implement robust new processes, policies and procedures, particularly around ensuring client confidentiality, within an extremely short timescale. Thankfully, the transition was a relatively smooth one.
Although now able to attend the office, we continue to operate remotely wherever possible. We are concerned the most vulnerable are struggling to access our services, and we are trying hard to communicate that we are still open, there to help and can see clients face to face if needed. Surprisingly, we have seen a reduction in enquiries in areas such as welfare benefits. We attribute this, in part at least, to the lockdown’s impact on advice agencies and charities (where many of our referrals come from), and on accessing these services. As you may expect, we have seen an increase in enquiries from those facing eviction or redundancy and from struggling small businesses. We recently delivered an employment law seminar for those impacted by long Covid too.
The growing backlog of cases before the courts and tribunals, is concerning. Even pre-Covid, it was not unusual to wait 12 months for a social security appeal to be heard. As over 80% of all the social security tribunals we deal with are successful, many vulnerable clients are having to wait a long period without the benefits they are entitled to. They can fall further into financial distress as they wait for a resolution, causing personal stress and a detrimental impact on their mental health.
On a more positive note, Covid’s impact has meant we have brought forward some planned developments, and I know we aren’t alone in having vastly improved our tech skills and capabilities - thank goodness for Microsoft Teams! We launched our first virtual internship this summer as we were concerned about the number of aspiring lawyers who would be missing work experience opportunities due to Covid. This proved very popular and we are due to roll out further virtual internships this coming year. We also produced online resources relating to furlough, including downloadable letter templates, which was a new initiative for us. We are also introducing a new case management system, which will make remote working easier and more efficient. In addition, many clients and students have welcomed the flexible approach, and the number of missed appointments (clients and students), has been reduced. Moving to remote service delivery has opened up work experience opportunities to a more diverse range of students, including distance learners. Many clients have embraced remote hearings, although we are mindful that this isn’t suitable in all cases. It would be great progress if remote hearings could still be an option in a post-Covid era, as its allowed some clients to partake in hearings they may have been unable to attend, or do so, in a less stressful and intimidating environment.
Students and staff have learnt new skills through conducting client meetings and hearings remotely. Even when ‘normal’ life resumes, I cannot see us returning to how we worked before. I think we have all embraced the positives remote working can bring. That said, it will be nice when we can have a healthy balance of office and home working. I can’t wait to make the team a cuppa and share snacks again!
I have been fortunate to grow my team during the pandemic and we had five new staff members join, including two placement students and a qualified trade mark attorney, who supervises IP cases over and above his teaching commitments. This recruitment has also allowed us to re-launch our housing service, which has been of paramount importance in the current climate. Whilst being surreal to have met new team members in person only a handful of times, the combination of formal, and informal, communication ensures we don’t lose those personal and social connections that are so important for a positive and supportive working culture. The team WhatsApp chat has thrived during the pandemic!
It has also been important to celebrate achievements, even if this has been online. We have seen junior staff members and our student volunteers win a number of awards over the past nine months, which has lifted spirits.
I have been incredibly proud to see how the team, including our amazing students, have adapted to the challenges of Covid. A huge amount of flexibility, resilience and professionalism shown along with genuine care and consideration for others has enabled us to continue to provide a much-needed service to our clients. Clients too have been hugely supportive and shown enormous gratitude that we can still help. Our clients are often vulnerable, so stopping or severely reducing our service was not an option. If anything, the pandemic has only sought to compound access to justice issues, leaving more people unable to afford, or access, legal advice and assistance.
Nottingham Law School Legal Advice Centre is an SRA regulated law firm integrated into Nottingham Law School and was the first of its kind when it obtained its ABS licence in 2015.
It enables Nottingham Law Students to obtain work experience and develop their practical skills, whilst also improving access to justice and benefitting the local community.
The Centre was awarded ABS of the Year 2020 at the Modern Law Awards for its innovation and community involvement.
Laura Pinkney is head of Nottingham Law School Legal Advice Centre