Law Council of Australia releases webinar on frontline legal services in times of crisis

The Law Council of Australia has released a webinar looking at legal regulation in times of crisis, and how regulators can respond to external crises in the most effective and empathetic manner. The webinar draws on the experience of Australian regulators who have been through this years bushfires as well as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and looks at their responses  and achievements over the period.

Panellist included Ms Rowan McRae (Executive Director Civil Justice, Access and Equity, Victoria Legal Aid), Mr Nassim Arrage, CEO (CLCs Australia) and Mr David Woodroffe, (Principal Legal Officer, NAAJA). The session was moderated by Law Council President, Dr Jacoba Brasch QC.

Watch the webinar here. 

Keep Distance Education for Law Schools: Online Education, the Pandemic, and Access to Justice

Abstract

While distance education made inroads throughout higher education, law schools kept their distance—until a global pandemic forced them all online for a time. Then the gatekeepers to the profession at the American Bar Association and state bars temporarily dropped their limits on distance learning. Now as American law schools prepare to return to normalcy, should distance learning remain an option? This essay argues that it should because it has potential to improve access to justice: distance education can reduce the costs of law school, increasing the supply of lawyers who can afford to provide less expensive legal services. Now is the time for legal regulators to make permanent what they allowed temporarily during the pandemic: distance-education-friendly accreditation and bar admission standards.

Weinberger, Lael Daniel, Keep Distance Education for Law Schools: Online Education, the Pandemic, and Access to Justice (July 27, 2021). Loyola University Chicago Law Journal, Forthcoming,

Solicitors Regulation Authority of England and Wales publishes results of study into innovation in the legal sector

The Solicitors Regulation Authority of England and Wales (SRA) has published the results of its independent study into innovation in the legal sector, commissioned in March.  The study was carried out on behalf of the SRA by a research team at the University of Oxford which included Professors Mari Sako and John Armour. The study has concluded that the majority of law firms were increasing their day-to-day use of technology, however, the development of bespoke legal technology was largely focused on advances which would benefit larger corporate clients.

The study has found that the pandemic has significantly impacted the uptake of technology, over the past 18 months it has been found that 87% of firms now use video conferencing services to meet clients and 66% store data in the cloud. 90% of firms also reported that changes made during the COVID-19 pandemic will be kept in place to some extent.

Technology usage was found to be highest among younger firms, firms operating through alternative business structures, and firms working in areas where technology was already established, like conveyancing. In terms of more advanced technology use- such as the use of automated documents, interactive websites and artificial intelligence – a little more than a third (37%) of law firms said they were currently using these.

The research found that the key stumbling blocks in innovation were related to funding and scalability. This meant that most bespoke development among technology companies was focused on products for the corporate sector. Firms working with individuals and small businesses stated that the most common barriers to accessing more advanced or targeted technological solutions were affordability, a lack of inhouse technology skills, or uncertainty over the business benefits from making an investment.

Anna Bradley, Chair of the SRA, said: “Supporting innovation and the adoption of legal technology is a key priority, as we set out in our Corporate Strategy. It can help increase access to justice for the public and small businesses, as well as supporting firms to be more efficient, benefitting everyone and the economy as a whole. These findings drive home the fact that when we talk about technology, we need to remember just how broad that term is and how far there is for some to travel. This is not just about artificial intelligence, virtual reality or future technologies. Some of the innovation which has the greatest potential to improve access to justice at pace is already available. Such technology can be applied widely and be used on a day-to-day basis to benefit both consumers and law firms. The challenge now is how we all work together to enable this to happen.”

Mari Sako, Professor of Management Studies at the University of Oxford and project leader for this research, added: “Technology and innovation have already changed, and will continue to change, the face of the legal services sector. Our research provides robust evidence of this. But we also found that benefits from legal technology are not evenly distributed across different market segments. Regulators, including the SRA, collaborating with other stakeholders could play a major role, not only to lower regulatory uncertainty but also to level the playing field across the market segments.”

Based on their report, researchers identified three key areas to be addressed in order to allow for greater development of innovation and technology:

  • Greater support and co-ordination among government, regulators and tech developers – particularly in encouraging innovation and identifying funding paths
  • Increasing public and law firm trust in new approaches and technologies
  • Increasing the technological and innovation skills and knowledge bases within the legal sector.

Read more and access the research here.

State Bar of California publishes digital annual report

The State Bar of California has published its second digital annual report. The report was conceptualised following the significant changes in the legal industry brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, creating rapidly changing policy goals and public protection requirements.

Donna S. Hershkowitz, Interim Executive Director of the state bar had said “Despite the onset of the challenges brought on by the coronavirus, Californians deserve access to a legal system that serves them with integrity and fairness. The State Bar quickly adapted to ensure that our essential work protecting the public continued. The publication of this report is one of many initiatives we are undertaking to support our strategic goals of transparency, accountability, and proactive communication.”

The 2020 report highlights changes implemented by the State Bar to address the pandemic including:

  • The establishment of a fully remote call centre to maintain service to the public.
  • Shifting examinations to remote administration
  • The creation of a new licensing programme for law graduates to start practice before passing the bar exam
  • Transitioning the State Bar Court to remote proceedings
  • Distributing $11.75 million through the Client Security Fund.

Read the full report here.

 

Singapore Ministry of Law offers free mediation services for couples and wedding vendors impacted by COVID-19

The Singapore Ministry of Law (“MinLaw”) has introduced a new free mediation programme for parties such as couples and wedding vendors who have been impacted by new COVID-19 restrictions. The MinLaw COVID-19 (Wedding) Mediation Programme first took effect on 8 May 2021 and was introduced in recognition of the fact that many parties had to either cancel, reschedule or downsize events, altering the goods and services provided. However, some have been unable to come to a decision around the provision of the services through direct negotiation.

MinLaw has suggested that by undertaking mediation parties may encounter such benefits as higher rates of settlement, time and cost savings, improved relationship between parties and confidentiality. MinLaw’s programme will require both parties to agree to mediation, with mediation facilitated by a neutral trained professional in a non-adversarial and confidential setting, and via videoconference where applicable. Mediators will facilitate the discussion and help parties work towards a mutually acceptable solution.

Read more about the programme here. 

Law School in a Pandemic: Student Perspectives on Distance Learning and Lessons for the Future

Introduction

When COVID-19 forced colleges and universities across the United States to send their students home and transition to a distance learning model for the duration of the Spring 2020 term, many faculty and staff had only the time afforded by an extended spring break to shift their curricula to online courses.1 But even if these faculty were given a full two weeks to prepare, that window would have been just a fraction of the four to six months some universities suggest dedicating to the development of a fully online course — to say nothing of the impact the pandemic may have had on their personal and financial wellbeing.2,3

While some undergraduate and graduate faculty were likely able to consult with internal university resources experienced in delivering online education, most law schools had a scarce curricular foundation to build upon. As of the Fall 2019 term, five law schools had received variances from the ABA to offer hybrid J.D. programs, allowing them to deliver parts of their curriculum in a distance learning environment.4 Prior to the pandemic, no ABA-approved law school offered a completely online J.D. program.5

While some law faculty may have had access to existing infrastructure that could house asynchronous learning materials or facilitate live online class sessions, few would have had the preparation or experience to rapidly transition their materials and instruction to a distance learning environment.

Available at AccessLex

Clinic in the Times of COVID-19

Abstract

This paper considers the challenges faced by clinical legal education programs in responding effectively to the COVID-19 pandemic. Client needs are different and more acute. They also need to be balanced with the safety of students and staff. Services will need to be delivered remotely. The article considers some of the key legal issues generated by the pandemic, highlighting the need for clinics and other legal service providers to respond to these emerging legal and related needs. In responding, clinics will be best served by adhering to their pedagogical principles in the design of new services and in reshaping existing practices. This should enable clinical programs to ensure that the experience of students remains distinctive, albeit different.

Giddings, Jeff, Clinic in the Times of COVID-19 (June 15, 2021). Monash University Faculty of Law Legal Studies Research Paper, Forthcoming,

Available at SSRN.

Bar Standards Board publishes independent review of 2020 qualifying exams

The Bar Standards Board (BSB) has published the results of an independent review of the August 2020 Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) exams, the exams used by the Board as part of the qualification process for barristers. The review was commissioned by the BSB in November 2020 and was conducted by Professor Rebecca Huxley-Binns, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education) of the University of Hull and Dr Sarabajaya Kumar, an interdisciplinary social scientist based at University College London, who is also an equalities consultant and a disability activist.

The Review found that candidates experienced a number of different challenges, including difficulty in changing to computer-based assessments and challenges related to online proctoring,  when sitting the examination remotely in August 2020, due to a variety of different factors. Based on these the review makes a number of recommendations, which have been collated by the BSB into an examination action plan, designed to ensure that changes are actioned.  The Action Plan is grouped into five main themes and includes measures to:

  • improve the BSB’s communication and engagement with students and training providers;
  • make the centralised assessments more accessible and inclusive, particularly when candidates require reasonable adjustments;
  • make the BSB’s approach to policy and process development in this area more inclusive by improving the regulator’s engagement with key stakeholders;
  • introduce a critical incidents policy and improve data protection and project management;
  • clarify the roles and responsibilities of the BSB and training providers in the management of the centralised.

Responding to the Review, the Chair of the BSB, Baroness Tessa Blackstone, said

“First and foremost, I should like to apologise again to all those students who faced difficulties completing their exams last August. The BSB had to move from pen and paper based assessments delivered by training providers to arrange computer based assessments in a very short period of time in the middle of a global pandemic. Ordinarily, such a change would have taken at least 12 months to plan and to pilot. I am pleased that the report finds that the BSB was right to seek to offer computer based assessments and right to contract with Pearson VUE to deliver the exams, including to run remote proctoring for the students sitting the exams online and to book testing centre spaces for students unable to take the exams remotely. Around 75% of BPTC exams were completed but far too many students faced difficulties which should never have occurred. The BSB’s staff worked very hard to implement the new arrangements for the exams but we very much regret that many students had a difficult experience both in booking and sitting the exams. The Board has welcomed the Review by Professor Huxley-Binns and Dr Kumar. It has approved the Executive’s proposed Action Plan and will ensure that the Review’s recommendations are put into effect. The Board has discussed the Action Plan with Professor Huxley-Binns and Dr Kumar and they fully endorse the Plan as meeting the recommendations in their Review. I am pleased that the Review found no failure of governance. The Board is determined to ensure that the BSB learns the lessons for the future. Those lessons will be of great help to the BSB and to future students. We are very grateful to all those who have contributed to this Review and I should like once again to repeat my apology to those who had difficulties last August.”

Read the BSB’s comments here, or read the full review here.

Law Society of Scotland survey finds support for increased use of remote civil hearings

A newly released survey of Scottish solicitors, by the Law Society of Scotland, has found that more than three-quarters of respondent think that aspects of remote civil court work should continue post-pandemic. The results found that the majority of civil court practitioners have indicated that they think remote hearings work well for procedural and uncontentious matters, however far fewer of the survey respondents thought that more complex hearings should be carried out remotely.

The survey found that:

  • 78.5% of respondents said they would like remote court hearings to continue after the pandemic. Of those, 91% said they thought procedural hearings worked particularly well, and almost all, at 99%, saying they would like to see them continue remotely.
  • However 5% thought proofs, a civil court hearing which is determined by a judge or sheriff, and 3% thought evidential hearings, such as a tribunal, worked well remotely. A quarter of respondents thought first instance debates worked well.
  • 32%, stated that they had no practical difficulties when participating in remote hearings, however 45% found it challenging to obtain clients’ instructions during remote proceedings. 41% of respondents thought that their clients struggled to either understand or participate and almost a quarter of solicitors, at 23%, found it more difficult to articulate their position.
  • The vast majority of respondents at 91% indicating that it saved travel time, 75% that it saved waiting time, 69% that it reduced costs and over half, at 55%, said it was more efficient than being personally present in court.
  • Concerns were raised in relation to the difficulties in assessing witness credibility and reliability remotely and respondents also said the lack of opportunity for proper face-to-face interaction with other agents, witnesses, and with sheriffs and judges, hindered effective participation. There were also issues with clients feeling disengaged from proceedings and problems with technology, including access to suitable devices and connectivity issues.

Amanda Millar, President of the Law Society of Scotland, said: “Covid-19 has instigated enormous change in the way we all work over the past year. The legal profession has adapted to this rapid change, however examining what has and has not worked well in relation to online proceedings will be essential as we begin to look at how civil courts should operate post-pandemic. We can draw useful insights from the survey findings and they will be helpful in considering what aspects, if any, of remote hearings could or should be incorporated into the civil court procedure longer term. While many of our members have indicated that remote hearings should continue in some form, there should be provision for in-person hearings, particularly in relation to more complex cases, but also for procedural hearings when required.”

Read more about the survey and the results. 

American Bar Association data shows increase in bar passage scores during the pandemic

New bar score data from the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, released on the 23rd of April 23, showed an increase in the scores compared to 2019 on both the ‘ultimate’ pass rate and for first-time takers, with the aggregate score of law graduates taking the exam for the first time rising by 3% to an 82.83% pass rate.

The data found that:

Students taking the bar exam for the first time in 2020 achieved an aggregate 82.83% pass rate (83.66% with Diploma Privilege), representing a 3-percentage point increase over the comparable 79.64% pass rate for 2019. Diploma Privilege considers those waived into the practice of law without taking the bar because of special rules during the pandemic.

And that 89.99% of 2018 law graduates who sat for a bar exam passed it within two years of graduation (90.10% with Diploma Privilege). This two-year marker, referred to as the  “ultimate” rate is slightly better than the 89.47% comparable figure for 2017 graduates. The report noted that 94.98% of all graduates sat for a bar exam within two years of graduation, and that schools were able to obtain bar passage information from 98.84% of their 2018 graduates.

Under a rule change in 2019, the 197 ABA-approved law schools still accepting students are required to have at least 75% of graduates who sit for a bar exam pass within two years of graduation. Schools found out of compliance have at least two years to meet the rule, known as Standard 316.

“These reports over the years have provided important consumer information for students considering whether and where to attend law school and for others with an interest in legal education,” said Bill Adams, managing director for ABA accreditation and legal education.

Read more about the data.