Enabling more people to access legal protection for domestic abuse

21st January 2022

RCJ Advice are a unique national Citizens Advice Service, delivering free legal advice to people with civil and family court cases who are unable to afford a solicitor

We've worked with RCJ Advice to create CourtNav, an online platform for domestic abuse survivors to apply for court orders that will keep them safe.

Project highlights

  • A public platform where a domestic abuse survivor can complete an application for a court order, and access specialist legal advice for their situation
  • Applicants are connected to legal aid solicitors who will advise them on the most appropriate course of action
  • Built-in review process enables legal advisers to easily work with their clients remotely, and get cases ready for court quickly
  • 15,720 people have received legal assistance through CourtNav since January 2020 (correct as of January 2022).

Challenges

CourtNav was initially part of the FLOWS project - a suite of services to help women domestic abuse survivors access legal protection. One thing that was needed was a simple, user friendly online form that would populate the FL401 court form for an applicant. As part of the FLOWS service:

  • A woman would access CourtNav with assistance from a domestic abuse organisation or another frontline advice agency
  • The form would be checked by a legal professional
  • The legal professional would be able to feed back any changes that were needed to get the application ready for court.

A key objective of the project was to ensure more women utilised legal aid entitlement for domestic abuse cases, so legal aid solicitor firms all around the country were brought on board as partners to review the cases that were eligible.

We carried out a series of discovery meetings and workshops with RCJ Advice, Rights of Women and key partner solicitors, where we surfaced some other specific needs:

  • The nature of domestic abuse applications means they need to get to court really quickly
  • Applicants benefit from being connected to a local solicitor who is familiar with their local family court, and can attend court with them in person.
  • There wouldn't always be a local solicitor within reach, so there also needed to be an option to connect with solicitors who could provide remote support by phone and email.
  • And for applicants who weren't able to take up legal aid, the legal team at RCJ Advice needed to be able to review cases remotely and help these applicants get ready to go to court themselves.

COVID-19

CourtNav also had to evolve very quickly. Not long after our initial launch came COVID-19 and national lockdowns, which meant little to no availability of domestic abuse advice services and court services. While at the same time there were worries that many domestic abuse situations could become more acute with people having nowhere to go outside their own homes.

The scope of CourtNav changed - Ministry of Justice funding meant RCJ Advice were able to expand provision to anyone in England and Wales (not just women) and the national lockdown situation meant people needed to be able to access CourtNav on their own (not just with assistance from an advice agency).

Solution

Online forms make a difficult process much easier

  • Applicants can self register and complete the online form themselves, or be assisted by a frontline organisation
  • Simple, ‘human readable’ questions capture the information needed to populate the FL401 court form and a draft witness statement

Super quick access to legal aid and domestic abuse accredited solicitors

  • Applicants get a choice of solicitor firms to send their case to, based on their postcode - cases can be sent to up to 7 solicitors
  • Solicitors work with clients to explore their legal aid options and establish their best course of action - if this is an application to court, then the solicitor will represent the client in court

Built in review process for a quick turnaround

  • If clients cannot take up legal aid, their case will get transferred to the CourtNav team at RCJ Advice who provide pro bono legal advice. They will help the client prepare their case for court, the client will then apply and represent themselves.
  • The CourtNav adviser uses the online form to suggest any changes needed. When the client logs in, they are signposted to any changes so they can quickly approve them and resubmit their form.

Everyone knows what's happening

  • Automated emails and on screen guidance ensure the client and solicitor can be clear about the status of the case at any time.

Benefits for applicants

CourtNav makes it easy to apply, and get connected to a solicitor for legal support:

  • Simple registration process and a user friendly online form, which populates a court form and a draft witness statement
  • Cases are typically collected by a solicitor firm within an hour of being submitted (solicitors can receive custom notifications for cases submittd out of office hours, including SMS notifications)

All applicants can get legal assistance:

  • All applicants with a case that merits a court order have the opportunity to explore legal aid entitlement. If they aren't entitled to legal aid, they can choose to work with a solicitor privately.
  • Applicants who can't take up legal aid or afford private fees can get pro bono assistance from the CourtNav team.

Essential safety features for domestic abuse survivors:

  • Quick close button quickly hides that someone has been on the site
  • Clear advice within the application about other important measures to stay safe online.

Easy to navigate

It was very easy to navigate and the questions were very well put and explained. It made a horrible process a little less exhausting. Thank you.

Anonymous
CourtNav applicant
Court Nav in progress

Benefits for solicitor firms

Solicitors can easily integrate CourtNav into their everyday workflow, and receive cases that they can start working on right away:

  • The client has already outlined details of their situation
  • Guidance throughout the online form preps the client up for the court application process
  • The solicitor gets a draft court form and draft witness statement from CourtNav
  • Case summary screen enables a conflict of interest check to be done up front
  • Solicitors can reject cases due to lack of capacity or conflict of interest, this makes the case available for another firm to collect.

Benefits for RCJ Advice

The CourtNav team at RCJ advice have extensive notifications and controls over cases, so they can ensure all clients get their cases handled as quickly as they need to:

  • Email notifications if a case doesn't get collected within 2 hours
  • Overview of all cases, their statuses and access to the 'submission history' to understand where it a case been sent, which organisations have accepted, declined or transferred it.
  • Ability to assign and reassign cases in rare cases where solicitors don't respond quickly enough.

Admin reports give useful insights into CourtNav usage and outcomes:

  • Equalities monitoring shows who the service is reaching
  • Outcomes reporting gives a nationwide picture of how courts are responding to cases, which helps inform policy, campaigning and wraparound services.
  • Case load breakdowns show which partner solicitors are the most responsive.
The result is a platform that's easy to use, and a service that helps clients take the most appropriate steps to keep them safe.

Do you have a frontline support service that could benefit from digital transformation?

We are experts in bringing simplicity to complex processes. We've worked across legal, advice, housing and health sectors. If you have a project that sounds similar, we'd love to talk.

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