Will the digital divide further widen the justice gap?
It is past the middle of the month and most likely I will not be able to reach my client. He has used up the 400 minutes from the limited phone plan he could afford as an indigent veteran. I am not the only person that my client needs to speak with this month and minutes lost on long wait times do not get refunded.
Some of my more capable clients are able to text, a service which often does not get shut off when minutes run out. As a legal aid attorney whose office whose office has always leaned forward into technology, I am fortunate to have the ability to receive text messages. But many agencies and other community resources do not. This was before the pandemic. The current situation is much worse.
As a result of COVID-19, our normal systems have changed, in many cases irreversibly. The pandemic has laid bare weaknesses and revealed that certain societal practices were not as essential as we have previously believed. In our legal system, old requirements for in-person hearings are giving way to creative solutions that allow for social distancing. In seeking to keep the justice system moving but the public safe, technology has increasingly become a solution. The courts are looking to telephonic or technology based options like Zoom or Microsoft Teams to meet litigants’ needs as the justice system reopens.
Unfortunately, many of Connecticut’s most vulnerable residents do not have consistent, reliable, and effective technological access. An increase in the use of tech-based litigation will cause those without adequate access to technology to be left outside and unable to participate. As Connecticut continues to recover from COVID-19, and prepares to both rebuild and be more resilient in the face of future outbreaks, we need to consider who we are leaving behind.
This access issue, called the digital divide, is broad—a combination of limited access to Wifi, data plans, minutes, and the equipment that utilizes this infrastructure. Many of the disabled veterans that I work with often live on or below the poverty line and fall into this category. By the middle of the month, text messaging is often the only way I can track down clients. A Zoom meeting with a judge is out of the question.
Connecticut has made it a priority to make sure that everyone has access to justice. Many people handle legal issues pro se (unrepresented) and often use pro se resources to navigate the legal process. The Judicial Branch and community partners have put a great deal of energy into making advice available to those who ask for it. Those resources were found in the courts or required access to technology and the ability to gather information in digital form.
The digital divide issue is not new, but it is being exacerbated by the pandemic. Individuals who depend on libraries and other community resources to get online do not have resources they need. Even if they were able to access public internet locations because these locations do not provide the privacy or space necessary for Zoom or Microsoft Team calls and meetings. People with limited cell phone minutes and unstable (or no) Wifi are shut out of these communications as well. Some of the software required will not work on older phones, computers, and tablets. Some individuals who, like many of my clients, are older or dealing with certain mental illnesses do not have the capacity to either access, learn, or navigate new technology. If courts are closed to physical visitation and digital access beyond a person’s reach, the digital divide becomes a justice divide.
The current situation is untenable for many of Connecticut’s veterans. In order to fully serve them, changes must be made. First and foremost, we cannot assume that people will be able to access a meeting over the phone, let alone through a more advanced device to participate via Zoom or Microsoft Teams. One solution would be to fund more resources in the community to meet this need. Our town and law libraries have been a great and necessary resource already, but as technology becomes a need and not a luxury, our community needs to rethink how to continue to provide and improve access for everyone.
The courts allow a great deal of flexibility and resources for people that want to start filing cases. It is important that many of the deadlines for responding as a defendant are also extended and given greater protections. For example, Summary Process (what non-lawyers call evictions) has a three-day turn around for filing. A tenant who is representing him or herself needs to do that at the court house if they cannot e-file. The result of missing the deadline is a default – losing your housing. So a defendant that stays in quarantine, without access to technology, will become homeless and have an uphill battle to fix the solution.
The clients I work with, and whom other civil legal aids assist, are fortunate to have access to an attorney. Most others face no help at all. If people fail to appear for their court dates, the collateral consequences can last a lifetime. We need ensure this doesn’t happen simply because they cannot afford to purchase private technology. The digital divide is leaving people behind, and shutting them out of the system that is supposed to serve them. The results are decidedly analog.
Darren Pruslow is Supervising Attorney at the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center/West Haven.
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