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The Digital Divide for Courts

by Lewis Morgan / June 21, 2024

Imagine navigating your day without the internet—no emails, online banking, access to news, or social media. For many of us, the internet is so deeply ingrained in our daily lives that we often take its ease and familiarity for granted. However, a staggering 2.6 billion people globally still lack internet access, highlighting a significant disparity. This digital divide isn't just a global issue; it's also a pervasive problem within the United States. Despite being a technological powerhouse, around 42 million Americans are still disconnected, leading to profound implications on education, employment, and access to essential services. As we delve into this issue, we'll explore the root causes, the effects on justice, and the steps to bridge this gap.

Root Causes

The digital divide in the United States is primarily due to geographical and economic factors. Rural areas suffer significantly more than urban areas. Why? Challenging terrain and lower population density. 

Setting up towers in rural areas is often logistically challenging and labor-intensive. These towers are the backbone of our powerful 5G networks. They transmit radio waves that our phones connect to, allowing us access to the network. They do, however, have a limited range. It is also quite costly, and with a low population density, the investment to set up these towers can be less than profitable. 

From an economic standpoint, low-income households sometimes cannot afford electronic devices and internet services. Roughly 22% of low-income households with children do not have home internet access. Without affordable internet access, the digital divide deepens.

Justice Impact

The digital divide between court technology and access to justice has been highlighted by a shift to remote proceedings and the increased use of technology within the court setting. Intending to streamline processes and allow services to continue during the pandemic, virtual courtrooms, remote proceedings, online services, and electronic filings became an integral part of court operations.

Technology enabled courts to remain functional during the pandemic and continue public service. When all parties have the right technology, online services and proceedings can lead to efficiencies. 

Remote court proceedings were more convenient for individuals with videoconferencing and stable connections. Remote proceedings eliminated the need to travel to and from the courthouse and reduced waiting time. Likewise, virtual proceedings often led to quicker resolution of the cases and allowed more people to be served

Another benefit is safety. Earlier this year, a man jumped over the judge’s bench and assaulted the judge in a Las Vegas courtroom. With remote proceedings, the physical safety of everyone involved is secure and can’t be compromised on a video call. 

That is not to say there were no challenges. Unwelcome parties were hacking into remote court proceedings, the technology was often deployed in haste, and dropped calls and background noises were disruptive to proceedings.

The most challenging issue with virtual proceedings was the individual experience. A survey in 2021 stated that people preferred in-person proceedings because they were more comfortable talking in person and felt disconnected from the court when participating remotely. 

The individual disconnect due to technology is an understandable problem as it is more difficult to portray your emotions and to feel heard over a screen. On top of that, technical difficulties, such as inconsistent internet connectivity and a lack of technical support, often disrupted proceedings. 

Digital literacy was also a prevailing issue; judges, lawyers, and litigants had to learn how to use technology effectively. The learning curve led to dropped connections, a lack of audio or video, and frustration by all participants. 

However, the most severe challenge was and still is access inequality. Individuals without internet access or digital devices are severely disadvantaged and unable to participate in virtual proceedings or access online resources. This issue inadvertently magnified the digital divide.

This technological shift has made it challenging for those in rural or low-income areas to participate in legal processes, access legal information, or even attend court proceedings. The lack of digital access can lead to delayed or missed court appearances. Without the right connections and technology, some participants had to travel to locations where they could connect, which, at times, was in a distracting environment and hindered the ability of all parties to hear and focus on the proceedings.

Ongoing Efforts

The courts are responsive to the digital divide and understand its impact on the administration of justice. Many courts are still trying to determine the norm and what they will change and continue to use regarding technology. 

Regardless of the norm, some jurisdictions are setting up public access points with internet-connected devices in community centers, libraries, and other public spaces to facilitate participation in virtual court proceedings. This is a step in the right direction, but does it put low-income families on a level playing field? 

Some courthouses are offering a hybrid choice. In some jurisdictions, an in-person or remote hearing can be requested by submitting a form. This doesn’t necessarily help bridge the divide but does offer a solution to those who do not have internet access to still attend in person.

Another ongoing solution was the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which ended on May 31, 2024, due to a lack of funding. The goal was to give low-income households affordable access to broadband networks. Of the 51.6 million eligible households, 17.7 million (34%) remained disconnected as of February 2024. 

Under the ACP, up to $30 per month was offered for internet access, and a one-time $100 discount was offered toward a laptop, computer, or tablet. We will have to wait to see if the ACP will continue, but I think it was the right step to help bridge the divide in today’s digital world.

Final Thoughts

Addressing the digital divide is crucial for ensuring equitable access to justice and other essential services. As courts increasingly rely on technology for remote proceedings, internet access and digital literacy disparities become more pronounced, particularly for rural and low-income communities. Ensuring that remote participation tools are user-friendly and accessible to all is important to ensure justice is carried out correctly.

Efforts to bridge this gap, such as establishing public access points and offering hybrid court options, are steps in the right direction. However, discontinuing programs like the Affordable Connectivity Program highlights the need for sustained and comprehensive solutions. 

Courts can also bridge the digital divide by offering digital literacy programs and support services. These programs can educate individuals on using technology to access court services, participate in virtual hearings, and navigate online legal resources. A sustained outreach effort will go a long way toward ensuring everyone has the skills to engage with the justice system effectively.

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Tags: Courthouse Technology

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Lewis Morgan

Lewis Morgan

Lewis is a computer programmer and web developer with a bachelor’s degree in computer science. He enjoys rugby, the beach, and hanging out with friends and family.