By Claire Donse at DLA Piper for PILnet

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads around the world, courts and justice actors are mobilizing to prevent a twin pandemic, in which a public health crisis is coupled with an access to justice crisis. As the coronavirus continues to extend its reach, governments around the world are introducing extraordinary measures in the name of public health and safety. Courts, law firms, legal clinics and legal service providers around the world are closing their physical doors, and are opening up for business online. We are seeing an unprecedented acceleration in the adoption of ‘remote’ or ‘online’ legal services.

This four part series has been written to share early perspectives on the use of technology to support access to justice from countries that are adapting to the impact of the coronavirus, and to consider the potential impacts of this technology on access to justice in the future.

A Surge in Demand For Legal Assistance Around the World

In our pro bono practice at DLA Piper, as in that of our colleagues around the world, after an initial drop off in demand while front line service providers moved their operations online, we are now seeing a rise in requests for pro bono assistance. Wave one is from charities and low-income clients facing immediate issues such as job losses, evictions, domestic violence, debt and financial issues, and questions about how to access government emergency packages and what to do about immigration and healthcare issues arising directly from the pandemic. Wave two will likely involve a restructuring of the landscape of legal services and legal service providers, and for those who survive the crisis, a rapid uptake in technology as new ways of working and delivering justice emerge.

For some front-line organizations, near-term survival is the only agenda item. Others are scrambling to move operations online, acquiring more software licenses for staff, cobbling together technology to meet their needs, and developing and upskilling staff on new ways of working. Those organizations that had previously invested in the technology to support remote and tech-based operations are now well positioned to provide advice and assistance to their clients remotely.

In Australia, where many full time and casual workers found themselves suddenly unemployed and unable to pay rent, legal demand has surged. Justice Connect, a legal charity that has invested heavily in technology and digital transformation, has reported a spike in visitors since the virus epidemic hit Australia. Their offerings include an online intake and referral tool, as well as ‘Dear Landlord’, a letter writing tool for evictions that guides users through a series of questions, collecting information to produce a tailored letter to send to their landlord. The technology platform has allowed Justice Connect to transition to remote working quickly, and to launch a new online legal clinic to allow people to ask discrete legal questions and receive advice from pro bono lawyers, using existing technology.

In the United States, PILnet, a global public interest law organization, has responded by creating, overnight, an intake portal to receive requests for assistance in relation to a government supported emergency payroll protection program. While in Europe and Asia, after consulting with community organizations and law firm partners, they have been hosting a series of webinars on key topics related to COVID-19. And, instead of waiting for needs to arise, PILnet has proactively engaged its global networks, including funders, to alert CSOs to available pro bono legal resources.

In Uganda, Barefoot Law has been using technology to disseminate legal information and provide legal advice for many years. It is reported to be the only legal assistance organization with the necessary infrastructure to continue to operate in the country. While Barefoot Law has developed its own technology platform, it also uses traditional social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram to disseminate its messages. In addition to ramping up its online and telephone services, it has also been providing more radio services, to provide information to Ugandans who do not have access to a web-enabled device.

In the UAE, the Dubai International Finance Centre (DIFC) has been using technology to allow litigants to participate in hearings remotely for some time. The DIFC pro bono clinic, which provides free legal advice to low-income employees of businesses within the DIFC, has also now shifted online. Unsurprisingly given the imposition of shutdown orders and the resulting impact on employment, especially in the hospitality and service industry, the caseload has increased.

As governments around the world have implemented lockdowns to prevent the spread of coronavirus, reported instances of domestic violence are surging. For people affected by domestic abuse, this often means forced confinement with their abuser in stressful circumstances, which may escalate the violence. At the date of writing this, more than half the world is currently affected by some form of lockdown.

Recent statistics released by the UN show that domestic violence rates in France, Cyprus and Singapore have increased by at least 30% since lock downs started; hotlines in Spain received 18% more calls in the first two weeks of the stay at home order and calls in Colombia increased by 79%. In China, there has been a tripling of the number of calls to police since the start of the pandemic. Technology is helping authorities and support groups to meet the demand. For example, Colombia has issued a decree to the effect that services dealing with domestic violence, including police and judicial services, must remain operational and accessible, including through online means. In Canada, uptake of a free mediation online that provides safety planning for those in abusive relationships has surged.

New web-based services to address domestic violence are also emerging, as well as online tools to provide support and facilitate the filing of complaints. When domestic violence helplines in Italy reported 55% fewer calls in the first two weeks in March, as women were unable to speak privately on the telephone, police responded by adapting a smartphone app originally designed to allow teens to report drug dealing near their schools. The app uses geolocation to provide police with information on the victim’s whereabouts and allows users to interact with police, and send messages and pictures.

In a similar vein, a Spanish WhatsApp service for domestic violence has reported a 270% increase in use since the lockdown was implemented. The instant messaging service provides psychological support to users, and directs them to other resources, including an instant messaging service with a geolocation function and an online chat room. Hashtags on Twitter and other social messaging platforms are also being used to direct people to online resources.

Claire Donse leads the DLA Piper’s pro bono program in Africa, Asia Pacific, Europe, the Middle East and the UK. Claire also works with New Perimeter, DLA Piper’s international pro bono initiative and nonprofit affiliate.

Read Part 2