“The people who use the legal advice clinic absolutely love it, because it's tremendously difficult getting free legal advice on particularly sticky issues.”
Brixton Advice Centre (BAC) has been offering advice to local Lambeth residents for over 50 years. When lockdown hit, BAC had to pivot rapidly to operating a remote-only service.
In early May 2020, BAC was awarded a grant of £17,276 from Walcot Foundation (via the London Community Response Fund) to -
“We found [LCRF] very positive - it was kicked off really quickly. It was clear. It offered a broad level of support. It wasn't too prescriptive and I thought the application process was very straightforward and simple as possible - that was appreciated.”
At the start of lockdown, advice staff had to get used to giving advice remotely, first by telephone and then also by video-conferencing.
“The advisers are all very competent in giving advice when it’s face to face, but solely giving advice over the telephone, it's a bit of a different beast, really. And I think it took some time for the staff to get used to that.”
During lockdown, communication and collaboration was viewed as key components in working effectively:
“What was very important to us during the whole crisis is the communications with others who were provided providing services. Ourselves, Centre 70 and Citizens Advice were having regular meetings with Lambeth Council, sharing what we were doing, what was working, what wasn't working, what kinds of inquiries. This meant we could make tweaks and adjustments to the processes that we're going through and that was very, very helpful.”
Although Covid-19 has been a massive challenge, BAC also saw it as an opportunity to try new approaches in providing advice. They identified that by shifting their Thursday-night drop-in legal clinic to a flexible online service, this can help them expand both the number of volunteers involved (as volunteer solicitors are not restricted to needing to be available on a Thursday night) and also make it easier for people to access free legal advice:
“[The online legal advice clinic] could be a really good model of offering advice to clients because it's a very easy way of reaching a big catchment area and because it's online, people can access it through the website. They don’t have to make a journey to our Thursday evening session - members of the public can just literally fire their inquiry in and get linked up with a lawyer who can ring up or Skype chat to go through it.”
Over a three month period from May, the Legal Aid Clinic gave over 200 hours of free legal advice to 160 individuals. Initially, many of the queries were linked to employment (e.g. dealing with businesses trying to terminate contracts or reduce hours unilaterally during lockdown). However increasingly there were also issues linked with neighbourhood disputes and family difficulties (e.g. divorce or access to children). They have now received further funding from Trust for London to continue and expand the online Legal Advice Clinic into the autumn.
However, BAC acknowledge that digital-only advice is not sufficient for many of their clients who are digitally excluded (particularly older people and people with complex mental health issues). This is why they reopened their ‘face-to-face’ advice as soon as possible in the summer.
Covid-19 has meant that BAC has expanded its capacity to offer advice – so it now has three routes to advice – face-to-face, telephone and video/online. These routes are likely to be highly tested over the coming months as employment furlough ends and possession hearings restart.
“Housing, family, employment are the main things coming through the clinic. And housing is just going through the roof and that is worrying. I think housing is a really big problem in Lambeth. We've seen lots of things coming in, particularly people in the private rented sector, being given no notice, being booted out, being asked for more money.”
Quotes from Patrick Torsney and Harriet Thomas, Brixton Advice Centre