Effectively utilising legal helplines
Published 12/10/2018 by Christin Gunther
Helplines are often seen as a viable way to use local resources to provide national services but there are a multitude of advantages offered by legal helpline. Here we look at how they may be most effectively incorporated into a wider system of legal service provision.
With the PSU currently in the process of developing their service to provide support for litigant s in person via telephone, there is an opportunity to look into established ‘legal helplines’ and the context in which they operate.
Legal helplines enable individuals to remotely access services including: the analysis of legal problems, advice on how these matters ought to be resolved and answers to specific legal queries. They may also perform brief services on behalf of clients, and especially for LiPs, such as making phone calls or writing letters. But in order to develop a coherent and comprehensive strategy for enhancing access to justice we need to identify where phone-based services can provide a significant contribution to a project and how they interact with the wider legal service provision landscape.
Phone-based services, like virtual services, are advantageous precisely because they enable remote access to advice services. This means that both LiPs and organisations make savings in terms of time and resources, especially in areas where services are sparse and the cost of travel is prohibitive. In this regard, this American analysis is instructive, since it extensively analyses the problems associated with such areas - specifically suburban ones in this case - and recommends systems of helpline advice that cover whole regions as one possible response.
Helplines also represent a variation of remote-service provision that can compensate for the weaknesses of other technology types. For example, helplines are most beneficial to those who need help discussing and identifying their key legal problems and to those who are less capable of utilising more advanced technological services, such as ‘DIY forms’, which facilitate the completion of court documents via user-friendly document assembly programs. It is no coincidence that legal helplines have been promoted by organisations with particular user groups such as the Centre for Elder Rights Advocacy (CERA) in the US, which are concerned about the legal situation of the elderly.
Of course there are also drawbacks to this method of facilitating access to justice. With ever increasing demands on all types of services, and as most of us who have ever sat in a call waiting queue can attest, there is always the possibility that clients will not get through to the organisation at the time of their call and there will not be an automatic,
permanent record of the interaction that provides clients with a point of reference that ensures they have understood the information provided.
In an ideal world, legal helplines would be integrated into a wider system of legal service provision and would be, for example, be followed up by emails and potentially further referrals to other services, as this useful ‘how to manual’ details. An illustrative example is the CLEAR hotline which aims to handle primary intake for all free legal service programs in the state of Seattle.
The manual also suggests that phone line services focus on providing services to populations who are more likely to be unable to access traditional legal advice services, such as persons with family responsibilities, persons with disabilities and those who cannot take time off from their job.
There will always remain some cases which require face-to-face appointments, particularly those that involve or those involving clients who can’t articulate their problem well or fully understand advice that is given by phone.
And while legal helplines have great potential to enhance access to justice, particularly for LiPs, it is clear they should be developed in tandem with a complementary variety of virtual and physical advice systems.