Adam Wyner, Swansea University
Richard Owen, Swansea University
BPO Insolvency, Speakeasy Law Centre and Citizens Advice of Neath Port Talbot
According to Citizens Advice, the coronavirus outbreak has led to financial turmoil for millions of UK residents, undermining fairness, equality, and economic opportunities. Due to this, people might consult online legal advice or qualified lawyers in pro-bono legal clinics. Legal advice clinics are desperately in need of greater capacity for restorative practice to help those with debt problems.
The project aimed support greater capacity in pro-bono clinics by developing, evaluating, and deploying an online Covid-19 debt advice tool.
The COVID debt advice tool
There were three parts to the COVID debt advice tool:
- a tool which gathers essential, basic information about the client’s situation as the basis for further debt advice by a legal professional
- provision of information to the client about the meanings of terms and consequences
- some guidance about possible approaches to debt resolution based on the client’s information
The project intended to base their analysis in consultation with legal professionals as well as with clients, by way of co-creating a support tool that incorporated the professional’s and client’s perspectives and experiences.
However, consultation with legal professionals was challenging in that much of their knowledge is tacit and acquired in training over time. Therefore, the project needed to elicit explicit, structured knowledge that could be of use in an implementation. The other source of invaluable information was only made available late in the project, namely, the 600 page ‘bible’ of debt advice.
Another challenge was to find current or former clients to consult with. Clients could only be located in collaboration with the supporting partners. Here the issue was that clients with debt problems are already under significant lack of resources; generally, it was advised that working with clients would be problematic.
The project came to appreciate a significant limitation introduced by data protection, liability, and legislation. To give debt advice required gathering and storing complex, context dependent, and highly sensitive personal information. To address data protection issues was beyond the scope of the project resources. In addition, given the highly structured and settled nature of the law about debt advice, the aim of interrogating law, legal practice, and power asymmetries could give rise to unexpected, significant legal hazards. To shield all participants from liability, it seemed necessary not to release a publicly accessible version.
Despite these limitations, the project developed a prototype accessed through the university server, which could, under controlled or artificial circumstances, be used to consult with user groups, carry out user studies, and discuss with an advisory board.
Along with the prototype, important lessons were learned about how to make such a tool and the related, significant caveats and constraints. Even so, the potential social impact of such a tool is very apparent, as the need for such support is more glaring than ever. The constraints would need to be addressed before progress could be made.
Reflections and Future Directions
Over the course of the project, they gained a detailed, well-structured understanding about the domain, underlying dynamics, and impediments. The social friction of development proved to be far greater and more problematic than anticipated. The knowledge of such friction will be taken into account in future developments.
Furthermore, it would be necessary to have some longer-term `buy in’ for tool development by legal professionals, clients, and others. This would enable development at the needed scale and longevity.