There has been an increasing interest in the use of video conferencing to provide legal advice and assistance to disadvantaged clients living in RRR areas. In Australia, this interest has increased in a context of:
- the diminishing feasibility and the relatively high cost of maintaining resident legal services in some RRR areas (Forell, Cain & Gray, 2010; Wilczynski, Ross & Connell, 2009)
- the technology for providing these services reducing in cost and becoming more accessible over time (Access to Justice Taskforce, 2009 p. 84) and
- the rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN) across Australia and the scope for this to be utilised in the provision of legal services in RRR areas (McClelland Media Release, May 2010).
In Australia and internationally, the rationale commonly expressed for using video conferencing to provide legal assistance in RRR areas is:
- to increase the accessibility of legal services to disadvantaged people in RRR areas
- to reduce the time and costs associated with providing in-person legal services in these locations.
Video conferencing is often assumed to provide a preferable mode of communication in comparison with the telephone because it allows participants to see each other 'face to face', enabling both non-verbal and verbal communication.2
In addition, some video conferencing systems have the advantage of capacity for efficient viewing and exchange of documents.
The provision of legal assistance to prisoners by video conferencing to enable them to appear in court for certain types of hearings has been largely a by-product of the rollout of this technology. While the primary purpose of establishing audiovisual links (AVL) between prisons and courts in NSW was to increase court efficiency and effectiveness, reduce prisoner movements and reduce costs (Hatzistergos, 2008), videolink facilities were also made available at Legal Aid NSW to enable lawyer-client communication for inmates, including those appearing in court by videolink (Corrective Services NSW, 2011).
The objectives of this review
The objectives of this review were to identify, appraise and synthesise the available evidence on the effectiveness, advantages and disadvantages of video conferencing as a way of providing legal assistance to disadvantaged people, particularly those in RRR areas and those in prison. In particular, we searched for evidence of:
- whether the provision of legal assistance by video conferencing has increased clients' access to legal assistance
- the cost and cost savings of video conferencing for legal assistance compared to alternative models of service delivery
- the effectiveness and appropriateness of video conferencing compared to other modes of legal assistance
- factors which affect the utility of video conferencing as a mode of legal assistance.
Disadvantaged people are defined in this paper as people who are limited in their access to material and social resources and their ability to participate in society (drawn from ABS, 2008 p. 5). We have focused on disadvantaged clients, as they constitute the target client group of public and community legal assistance services in Australia. Indeed, in the most remote parts of NSW, the majority of the locally available legal assistance is provided (or funded) by public legal services (Forell et al, 2010).
The terms'video conferencing' and audiovisual links (AVL) refer to all synchronous (two way) communication with audiovisual interface, whether via integrated service digital network (ISDN), satellite or internet protocol (IP) with video conferencing technologies. These technologies include videolink, video conferencing and web-based technologies such as Skype and WebEx.3
Notably, our review focuses primarily on video conferencing by ISDN, as we have only located one program (not yet evaluated) which uses Skype to provide legal assistance.
Real time web-based interactive technologies such as chat services, and social media such as Twitter and Facebook, have been excluded from this review. We have also excluded
the provision of asynchronous (one way) legal education or information by way of video, through the internet or otherwise.