Four members of the LICM holding a discussion on a remote videoconferencing platform.

After ceasing on-site operations in response to COVID-19, the Legal Information Clinic at McGill (LICM) transitioned to functioning remotely. LICM Executive Director Georgina Hartono and Director of Communications Alexandra Magazin reflect on this transition with Focus online.

What has been involved with transitioning the LICM towards remote operations?

March and April were challenging months, but the process went smoothly overall thanks to the dedication of our entire team. When we ceased our on-site operations, we needed to adapt the way we delivered services in all three of our three branches: Legal Information, Student Advocacy, and Community Services.

Legal Information: Our priority was to inform our clients of the changes in our operations and deliver the answers to their legal questions in a timely manner. Given that only Directors had remote access to the LICM’s client database, they were the only ones who could share those answers with our clients—a task that is typically performed by our Volunteer Caseworkers. Volunteer Caseworkers sent along the research memos they had already started, and with the assistance of our Senior Caseworkers, the Directors verified the accuracy of the memos and delivered them verbally to clients using our personal cell phones (with blocked IDs).

Student Advocacy: We continued to take on urgent cases and work on outstanding files remotely, holding meetings with their clients and university officials via phone or through virtual means.

Community Services: Although we unfortunately had to cancel a few JustInfo public education seminars, we created a “COVID-19 Resources” page on our website with information on the legal clinics in Quebec that remain operational during the COVID-19 crisis. We also continually share articles on our Facebook page regarding the latest developments in the Quebec legal system.

What were the biggest challenges in the process of moving towards operating remotely?

Our biggest challenge was coordinating such a large team, which has over 100 employees and volunteers across all three branches! We had to be very clear in assigning tasks and following-up. Countless emails and Slack messages were sent, and many spreadsheets were used and shared! We also transitioned our in-person weekly meetings to Zoom.

We also had to host both our final Board Meeting and our Annual General Meeting online for the first time in the LICM’s history. Despite being quite tech-savvy, we had to master Zoom within a few days. The meetings were successful, though we still have to figure out how to change our background on Zoom!

Does the LICM see advantages to working remotely?

We definitely see the advantages. One of our Board Members even suggested that we explore the option of delivering webinars instead of our traditional in-person presentations during these next few months. If we were to disseminate legal content online, we are positive that the information could reach a wider audience and thus facilitate access to justice.

However, we also see the value of our walk-in and in-person services. We have encountered clients who do not own phones or computers. For them, remote services present a technological barrier to access to justice. Some clients also come to the Clinic to feel listened to, and the human element of those interactions is often diminished when the conversations take place by phone or online.

Will LICM continue using videoconferencing or other online tools to connect with clients post-pandemic?

We are definitely thinking of new ways to reach clients, and some of these temporary initiatives could very well become permanent fixtures. It will be up to the incoming team of Directors to explore these options.

Are there lessons for the operations of the broader judicial system that might be drawn from the pandemic?

Currently, administrative tribunals and courts in Quebec have suspended non-urgent trials and delays indefinitely. However, if the government ban on gatherings becomes a long-term measure, the judicial system will be forced to rethink the way it operates and its use of technology.

Going forward, making forms accessible to the public (like they have already done for the originating application at small claims court) or holding hearings virtually could lessen delays and have a significant impact on access to justice.

Interview: Sarah Huzarski.
Photo: Courtesy of the LICM.