Skype justice: Budget cuts push community lawyers to improvise with IT

Community lawyers are forced to rely more and more on information technology because of budget cuts, a new study finds.

Community lawyers are forced to increasingly depend on communication tools like Skype and Twitter to combat the adverse effect of funding cuts, a new study revealed.
According to a census by the National Association of Community Legal Centres (NACLC), 43% of Queensland's community legal centres provided legal advice using Skype, 14% used Twitter, 33% used Facebook and 9% used YouTube.
Community legal centres are reacting to a 30% federal funding cut from July, the Community Legal Centres Queensland (CLCQ) noted.
“Our centres are only able to see three out of seven people looking for legal advice.  Community legal centres have had to look at creative ways to address this unmet need.  Increasingly we are using technology to provide free legal information,” James Farrell, CLCQ director, said in a statement sent to Australasian Lawyer.
Meanwhile, the study also showed community legal centres rely heavily on volunteers. The 28 community legal centres that participated in the survey reported 1,750 volunteers giving 96,000 hours of their time to help provide services.
The volunteers include commercial lawyers, migration agents, students, law graduates, and counsellors.  For additional help, 48% of the centres had set up a formal arrangement with a university to offer clinical legal education to students.
“These census results show that centres are facing funding cuts over the next twelve months which will see a reduction in services and outreach, closure of branch offices and telephone advice lines, and loss of staff. As a result of this we have had to rely on volunteers to deliver these vital services,” Farrell said.
With funding cuts, community legal centres are working to generate independent funding, with 25% relying on philanthropic contributions and 40% of centres bringing in income from fundraising and sponsorship, according to the NACLC census.
“Our census showed that community legal centres are also being forced to spend more and more time on searching for funding to maintain crucial services. The Census revealed that 28 community legal centres spent 247 hours per week in 2014/15 financial year on funding-related activities. This means less time is available to provide legal assistance to clients,” concluded Farrell.
The national survey looked at the work undertaken by Queensland community legal centres over a twelve month period. 
The census found that the top 3 specialist areas or client groups for community legal centres were domestic/family violence (46.0%), homelessness (41.1%) and family law (40.3%).
It also revealed that 15.3% of community legal centres’ clients identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders, and more than a quarter of community legal centre clients say they have a disability. 15% of clients are from a cultural and linguistically diverse background.
The study also found that 28 Community Legal Centres in Queensland report turning away 58,000 people and pro bono partners contributed 25,210 hours of assistance to 28 CLCs.

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