Advice sector workers risked being infected with Covid to preserve face-to-face support during the pandemic, a report for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has found.
Researchers also said that demand from housing, debt and welfare benefit clients for telephone advice “far exceeds” that for advice delivered via video conferencing.
Academics from Cardiff University and Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, used focus groups and interviews to study the hybrid or ‘blended’ advice provided by legal advice agencies and other organisations in the two years to March 2022, in what they described as the first research of its kind.
“In terms of the physical risks associated with the pandemic, focus groups revealed that some advisors put themselves at risk of exposure to the virus during the pandemic to provide face-to-face advice to clients who were at risk of disengaging with services.
“Frustration among advisors providing remote advice was commonly felt where a face-to-face appointment with a client would have been a more efficient way of providing advice than struggling to do so through extended remote communications.”
Advisors “identified a continued need for face-to-face advice provision especially for vulnerable clients, who may be contending with mental health problems, limited resources, disabilities, or a range of other kinds of unpredictable circumstances which require more hands-on support”.
Researchers said in the report, Blended Advice and Access to Justice, that face-to-face support “cannot be forgotten in any rush towards technological advancement” and “whatever additions technology can bring, there is and will remain a need for both”.
Positive experiences of blended advice was sometimes linked with to clients “living in remote areas, younger age groups, or those with mobility-related disabilities”, while clients with “mental health problems and other kinds of disabilities” were “frequently at risk of disengaging from services entirely if face-to-face appointments were not offered”.
Meanwhile, across all three areas of law, advisors reported that “demand for telephone advice far exceeds the demand for videoconferencing when it comes to providing services remotely”.
Most clients were “far more likely” to have access to a landline or a mobile phone than computers or tablets.
“Access to adequate video-conferencing technology and a decent broadband connection is invariably a significant barrier for clients.
“Offering advice via this method alone runs the risk of clients disengaging after their initial contact, or failing to present to services in the first place.”
Researchers said blended advice gave clients “more options” to clients and could improve their experience.
Clients emphasised “several benefits”, including increased accessibility and flexibility, with clients able to receive advice “at a time and in a format that suits them, as well as improved confidence and autonomy”.
However, blended advice created challenges in terms of “resource constraints, the ability to forward-plan, as well as increased burdens in terms of workload and wellbeing”.
The pandemic had led to “big changes” as advice organisations had “implemented new systems, advisors have developed new working practices, and clients have adapted to a new form of provision.
It had “exacerbated” funding problems, bringing an increased reliance on grants as a funding source, which were “inherently short-term” in nature.
“The overwhelming message that emerged from this research was that there is no going back – and that the positive changes that have occurred should be embraced, whilst the associated challenges should be mitigated.”
The authors of the report were Dr Jessica Mant at Monash University and Dr Daniel Newman and Danielle O’Shea at Cardiff University.