In 2017, the virtual legal clinic (VLC) was established at Monash Law Clinics providing legal services to clients who cannot attend community services in person, because they live in regional or remote areas, or because of disadvantage and marginalisation. Additionally, the VLC provides opportunities for law students undertaking clinical placements to learn the skills needed to make the law available to people who would otherwise have no affordable sources of legal help.
The VLC makes innovative use of technology to assist with the provision of legal service. In addition, it adds value to educating students about the technological advances occurring in legal practice.
How does the virtual clinic work?
The VLC operates similarly to more traditional legal services utilising digital technology (Zoom) to provide advice to clients via technological means on a variety of legal matters, including tenancy, credit and debt, administrative law, social security, criminal law matters, family law and family violence. Through participation in the VLC, students learn that barriers to access to justice are experienced by almost every client, enabling students to reflect on why the legal needs of clients and communities are not being met, or how they can be better met.
Meeting client needs while showing students how the profession is changing
The VLC is designed as a flexible framework for client service delivery as well as for teaching students about access to justice, the changing nature of legal work and the parameters of professionalism.
These issues are explored further in a forthcoming book chapter (J Weinberg and J Giddings, ‘Innovative opportunities in technology and the law: The virtual legal clinic’ in A. Thanaraj & K. Gledhill (Eds), Teaching Legal Education in the Digital Age, Routledge). By exploring how technological advances have impacted on legal practice and how law schools have responded to these changes, we show that a VLC is an innovative opportunity to make use of technology to teach students to practice law in ways that assist clients to access justice. We focus on issues that need to be addressed to prepare students to make effective use of technology to assist clients, including developing communication skills for interaction with clients via technology, and building trust with clients.
Adapting the virtual clinic during COVID-19 and beyond
In 2020, COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing requirements precluded the offering of Monash Law clinical units in the usual onsite program. Having already established the VLC, we were able to develop, design and implement a remote clinic program, which provides an experiential learning opportunity for law students equivalent to that normally enjoyed onsite by students enrolled in these units.
Similar to the VLC, the remote clinic program, via telephone or zoom, provides remote legal services to clients, who are disadvantaged either through financial hardship or other circumstances, including disability, language barriers, family violence or other circumstances that have arisen through COVID-19.
The Monash Clinical Program has made considerable strides in developing programs that blend clinical legal education and technology to enhance access to justice while educating students in the use of technology in providing legal service. These developments, in meeting the changes caused by advancements in technology, will become even more important in the future.
If after COVID-19, clinic students return onsite, it is intended that ongoing remote clinical units will be implemented to continue assisting the broader community by utilising technology to provide legal services to those who cannot attend community services in person. At the same time, educating students as to how legal practitioners can provide clients with legal service remotely, enhancing their ability to access justice.
As clinical colleagues in Canada, the UK, the US and elsewhere have also identified, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a need for clinics to move online at pace. Our pre-pandemic experience put the Monash Clinical Program in a good position to continue to provide legal services to our clients even as the world was rapidly changing around them. Building the evidence base about our experiences with this work will help clinics to develop effective legal service and educational practices as we navigate the new terrain.
Dr Jacqueline Weinberg is the Academic Director of the Springvale Monash Legal Clinic and an academic in the Law Faculty at Monash University. Her areas of research include dispute resolution, student wellbeing and the links between technology and the law in enhancing access to justice. She is also a Fellow of ACJI, and her research uses empirical methods to investigate how with ADR becoming increasingly dominant in Australian legal practice, clinic students can become knowledgeable about ADR to better advise clients about cost-effective options for resolving cases without resorting to litigation. This enhanced focus on ADR has the vital ancillary effect of advancing access to justice.