Thanks to advances in technology, the fight for equal access to justice has the potential of making enormous strides. A great example is the project Proskauer helped spearhead with the nonprofit Legal Information for Families Today (LIFT), which is now connecting pro se litigants in family court throughout New York State with pro bono services through a convenient online platform. Programs like this represent a tremendous leap forward in ensuring adequate legal guidance regardless of one’s location, but the requirement of sufficient internet access leaves some in the dark.
The lack of sufficient, reliable internet connectivity disproportionately affects rural Americans – a disparity New York State calls “the digital divide.” In a recent report issued by Albany Law School, 573 rural lawyers were surveyed about the various challenges they face. Of significance, “the survey revealed repeated complaints about rural broadband/internet access and technology communication shortcomings in rural communities.” A subpar technology infrastructure increases the cost of operation for these practitioners, especially when it comes to the many hours of driving that could be avoided if high-speed internet services and reliable cellphone service were universally available.
In addition to the logistical issues presented by representing a rural population, 76% of these attorneys noted that their clients often had difficulty affording legal services, and lacked transportation. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that many of these clients cannot afford a landline and cellphone service is often spotty in rural areas, making communication with counsel incredibly difficult. The expansion of fiber optic internet and cellular services would greatly help these practitioners conduct research, communicate with clients, and participate in court video-conferences.
It is long past due to substantially invest in rural America — through partnerships between the public and private sectors — to make broadband accessible to all. That way, Americans of limited means even in the most remote, rural areas will finally be able to access counsel, and attorneys, in turn, will be better equipped to represent them effectively.