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Legal services remotely

On Wednesday, March 3rd 2021, members of the Legal Empowerment Network (https://namati.org/network/), held a virtual discussion on how to Provide Legal Services Remotely.

Led by Marlon Manuel, Senior Advisor, Legal Empowerment Network, with international experts:

  • Sara Andrews, Senior International Pro Bono Counsel at DLA Piper and Assistant Director of New Perimeter (USA);
  • Andrew Valentine, Partner at DLA Piper (USA);
  • Yevgen Poltenko, Executive Director, Legal Development Network (Ukraine);
  • Annette Mbogoh Executive Director, Kituo Cha Sheria (Kenya).

The webinar highlighted how legal empowerment groups can take on the challenges of remote work.

Practitioners shared their experiences with leveraging technology and ensuring confidentiality as they adapt their modes of communication with community partners and clients. As legal empowerment practitioners, we work closely with communities. But safety precautions during the pandemic have required us to reinvent the way we operate. Undeterred by social distancing measures, limited gatherings, and travel restrictions, network members are developing promising new ways of working remotely.

We are pleased to highlight a few of these experiences in this webinar. Listen to the recording below:

Executive Director of the Legal Development Network Yevgen Poltenko talks about the tool used by the union to provide remote consultations.

On the photo: Yevgen Poltenko, Executive Director, Legal Development Network

1.  Please briefly describe the LDN program.
It is a live chat platform for providing free legal assistance (consultations).

2.  How does the program work? Can you please explain how it operates. (please describe how you receive questions/requests, who receives these questions/requests, how advice is given, when you refer issues/cases to other organizations, and other operational details)

Users may submit their questions on the Legal Development Network (LDN) website through a dedicated chatbox. A pool of over 30 lawyers from 15 LDN member organizations respond to the questions and engage in a live conversation with the user from Monday to Friday during normal business hours. LDN member organizations are scheduled on specific days of the week to provide support for the live chat, which typically involves one lawyer answering around up to 20-30 questions per day. If a matter requires follow-up, the lawyer will send the individual information for a personal consultation with the LDN legal office. If the office is unable to take the case on, it will refer it to one of LDN’s member organizations or partner organizations/institutions. However, approximately 95% of questions are resolved in the live chat, and only 5% require outside referrals. The live chat service is publicized on social media and through traffic on the website (more than 50,000 visitors visit the LDN website every month). Many LDN member organizations also promote the live chat feature on their websites and pages on social media.

3.  Your program started even before the pandemic, what led you to launch this program?  How did you start?

Access to justice is impossible without access to legal aid. But our resources will never be enough to reach all those who need this help. So we decided to take advantage of technological opportunities and create a virtual legal office. Using funds from a donor organization – International Renaissance Foundation (part of Open Society Foundations), LDN contracted with an IT company to develop the software and integrate it into the LDN website in 2017. Ongoing costs to LDN include paying IT specialists who coordinate the schedule of lawyers and provide technical support to the lawyers during their shifts. We have to fundraise $20.000 every year to secure this service.

4.  Can you describe how the pandemic has affected your program?  Or rather, how did the program help you during the pandemic?

The pandemic has become a ‘star time’ for our live chat platform. And the fact that our case is mentioned in the guide confirms this. The volume of legal consultations provided in 2020 increased five times (!) compared to the previous year. In the first months of quarantine restrictions, this was almost the only opportunity for our lawyers to help people. That is, unlike our colleagues from governmental and non-governmental organizations, who had to adapt to new pandemic reality, thanks to our online platform, we never stopped providing consultations.

5.  What challenges have you experienced in running the program?

The primary and most significant challenge is to secure funding for the service.
The second most important challenge is to attract qualified volunteer lawyers.
And the third challenge is to teach lawyers to use the technical capabilities of the platform properly.

6.  What recommendations can you give to our attendees?

I recommend that organizations hoping to implement a similar service ensure that they have a large pool of partner organizations and lawyers who are willing to assist. Organizations should also coordinate with a technical specialist to help with all technical aspects of the platform, such as making shift schedules, notifying lawyer volunteers, and ensuring that any backlogs are cleared. We also developed a written guide and video tutorial on how to use the live chat, which it recommends to ensure that the volunteers know how to use the platform. Finally, because not all people who need legal advice have electronic devices with access to the internet, organizations might consider providing legal aid by phone (‘cloud’ call-center).

On the photo: Annette Mbogoh, Executive Director Kituo Cha Sheria

Executive Director of Kituo Cha Sheria Annette Mbogoh shared her organization’s experience in providing remote legal advice.

1. Please briefly describe the M-Haki program.

This is a SMS Legal Advice Service that was launched by KITUO on 16th December 2016 to enhance access to justice for the poor and marginalized. The innovative platform is used to disseminate legal information at the click of a button, making it cheaper and easier for disadvantaged groups to understand and protect their rights.

The public can enjoy this service by sending a text message of their legal questions to 0700777333 and will receive a response within 48 hours.

2.  How does the program work? Can you please explain how it operates? (please describe how you receive questions/requests, who receives these questions/requests, how advice is given, when you refer issues/cases to other organizations, and other operational details)

The system operates simply with SMS messages coupled to the M-haki website. A user can send his/her legal question to mobile number-0700777333. The question is automatically uploaded to www.m-haki.co.ke. The website automatically sends one standard SMS reply to new submissions acknowledging receipt of the message. 

Kituo’s in-house lawyers and pro bono advocates are able to log in, view and respond to the question through the website. Responses will be sent via SMS to the person who originally asked the question.

3.  Your program started even before the pandemic, what led you to launch this program?  How did you start?

One of our core activities includes the provision of legal aid services to walk in clients (at the Head Office and branch offices in Nairobi and Mombasa). Our team observed that clients from other parts of the country other than Nairobi and Mombasa had to travel long distances to access our services. After spending money on transport and travelling long distance to get to our offices, many were informed that they were either time barred, or that they needed to go back and get some crucial documents or that there was no cause of action. M-haki was therefore created to:

  • Reduce the logistical costs of accessing justice;
  • Make justice more accessible and promote access to information;
  • Have and an accessible data base of practical legal solutions;
  • Promote the use of technology in promoting access to justice; and 
  • Create awareness on legal issues and build legal capacities of community paralegals and users.

4.  Can you describe how the pandemic has affected your program?  Or rather, how did the program help you during the pandemic?

Our creation has proved to be useful in ensuring and promoting access to justice since at the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic we had to close our offices and all staff members were working from home in response to the safety measures provided by the Government of Kenya. However, all was not lost since our lawyers continued to provide legal advice through the M-Haki platform.

5.  What challenges have you experienced in running the program?

Sustainability of the platform: the platform has running costs that are now 100 percent donor funded. We currently receive funding from the Netherlands Embassy to run the programme. This includes hosting of the platform, internet costs and maintenance of the platform. The cost cannot be shifted to our indigent clients. Finding sustainable ways to run the programme has been a challenge. 

Expanding the use by community paralegals and volunteer advocates: Issues of confidentiality and quality control when it comes to use of the platform by our partners e.g. volunteer advocates and paralegals. 

6.  What recommendations can you give to our attendees?

  1. Innovation is good but there is a need to find sustainable financing for justice innovations.
  2. Being sensitive to the needs of indigent communities when developing innovations is important. There is a need to establish a higher level of adoption of various forms of mobile technology in the market beyond SMS to voice, web and social platforms easily available and affordable to the general population.
  3. Explore partnerships with agencies and service providers to facilitate the growth of justice innovations; this will boost growth and further innovation. 
  4. Dare to move out of your comfort zones. All the platforms for remote access to legal aid meant moving out of the normal/comfort zone. 

More information: Providing legal services remotely: a guide to available technologies and best practices

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