Access to justice in the lockdown

Covid-19 has upended the way that everyone works, but the Advocate team has scrambled to adapt quickly and support from the Bar has been fantastic, says Shyam Popat

It seems like a lifetime ago since we all worked together in the office and applications to Advocate had to be made on paper. The franking machine worked overtime, we were always looking for DX envelopes and barristers would drop in to say hello when they dropped off or picked up files. Now everything is Zoom this, electronic bundle that and by the way is the website up to date still? 

Reminiscence aside, in anticipation of the lockdown and eager not to leave our applicants without hope of assistance, we put all hands on deck in the office to scan all the applications we had and find a way to take us from hard copy to digital in a matter of days. One incredibly generous QC (and Advocate trustee) offered up his chambers, 4 Stone Buildings, to help us scan documents. We used them – and every scanner in the National Pro Bono Centre – to create a virtual filing cabinet of applications that we could process like it was business as usual.

Then followed some quick training on software that would enable us to create electronic bundles, a laptop get-together to make sure everyone could download everything needed for remote working and that was it. A system that we'd been discussing and trialling for more than a year had been achieved in a week. Almost.

We still had to create an online application form that removed the need to be referred by an advice agency or MP. A lightening quick build and some stress-testing later, we launched it on 30 March. We received 34 applications in the first week.

Amid all this chaos and change for us, and despite the massive upheaval caused to barristers and courts by the lockdown, the team and I have been incredibly touched by the response from the Bar. In the last two weeks of March, we signed up 55 new volunteers looking to help our vulnerable applicants. We barely needed to ask, people just reached out to us and offered their help. Our caseworkers remark daily to the team about how enthusiastic our amazing barristers are being, trying to take on urgent cases for worried applicants who have difficulty navigating the system even when it's not in turmoil.

Our reviewers are also going the extra mile. Diligently attending their training evenings on Zoom, signing up to the rota in large numbers and processing reviews quickly and pragmatically so we can keep the applications moving as smoothly as possible.

And chambers are kindly renewing their memberships as Advocate Patrons, pledging money so we can keep working at a time when all charities and advice organisations face an uncertain future. At the three-quarter mark, we've also been touched by how many of you have donated to us when renewing your practising certificates. The gesture means a lot, especially now, and your generosity towards us makes us all the more determined to keep going as best we can.

As with all new structures, I'm sure there will be teething problems and the future will be challenging for us all. We expect to see an upturn in applications as people lose their jobs, businesses, suffer family problems and deal with the economic and social fallout from coronavirus. We will have to keep adapting and changing to meet the needs of our applicants and the barristers we couldn't do this without. Thank you for standing with us at this difficult time.

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Shyam Popat

Shyam Popat is Chief Operating Officer and Head of Casework at Advocate (the new name of the Bar Pro Bono Unit): weareadvocate.org.uk.