The Law Centres Network (LCN) is developing a digital tool aimed at helping law centres cope with a surge in demand due to the cost-of-living crisis.
Figures from Greater Manchester Law Centre, one of three law centres trialling Enquiry Desk, show that it handled almost 5,700 enquiries in the last six months, with welfare rights and housing the main issues raised.
Julie Bishop, director of the LCN, said: “The biggest problem law centres face is managing demand. How do you not lose some of the enquiries?
“The tool helps reception staff manage requests for service. It means we can capture client enquiries and handle them systematically. A decision can then be made about whether a lawyer can help them.
“Our most expensive resource at law centres is our lawyers. How do we make the best use of lawyer time? To do this, we need better data. The data also gives us evidence to provide to policy makers about what is happening.”
Ms Bishop said the LCN helped the 42 law centres, which are independent organisations, become sustainable through training, funding and digital programmes, while bringing them together and acting as their voice.
She said the LCN was still in its post-pandemic “reinvention phase” when the cost-of-living crisis hit.
“The demand for our services in some areas, such as welfare benefits, increased by 400%, while evictions are at an all-time high.”
Ms Bishop added that LCN headquarters was using Enquiry Desk to deal with enquiries that came directly to it.
Enquiry Desk data from Greater Manchester Law Centre shows that the centre receives over 11,000 enquiries a year.
In the past six months it has received 5,673 calls and emails (an average of 31 a day) from 4,438 different people. Top of the list of issues raised were welfare rights and housing. They were followed by family law, immigration and civil litigation.
Alex Charles, IT and digital officer at the LCN, said a further advantage of Enquiry Desk was that it captured information from clients which could then be used by a number of people. “Clients often say they have to report things over and over again to different people.”
She said more funding was needed to develop Enquiry Desk further and roll it out to other law centres.
Meanwhile, another digital tool, using Salesforce, is being rolled out to law centres at the moment to support back-office staff, particularly HR and fundraising managers.
Ms Bishop said the tool, which had been piloted with four law centres, centralised HR systems and fundraising intelligence, and after the roll-out could be made available to other organisations in the sector.
She said the LCN estimated that a third digital programme, its IT upgrade, had achieved a time saving through staff having better equipment equivalent to nine full-time members of staff.
More reliable equipment produced day-to-day costs savings and reliability of service provision.
Ms Charles said the IT upgrade, which followed research to find out which changes law centres thought would have the most impact, had delivered more than 1,000 new pieces of equipment, such as laptops, or services such as network upgrades.
The IT upgrade is funded by a £750,000 grant from the Legal Education Foundation, while the digital transformation programme is predominantly funded by the National Lottery Community Foundation.
“For a time, funders were interested in supporting digital transformation and now they’re not. This means that further digital work can only happen in a piecemeal way where we can obtain small amounts of funding,” Ms Bishop said.
“This work is never over and never finished. The work could potentially dissipate without funding to keep it going. It’s a big challenge.”