Ian Mulgrew: Online migration of social services raises equity concerns

Report: “The younger and more affluent the user, the better they can generally deal with digital. But we have to recognize and plan for the fact that many people who have low incomes and feel marginalized, do not have access to digital information or are unable to use it.”

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The delivery of key social services online triggered by COVID exacerbates the digital divide created by economic disparity and is hampering access to justice, research by Legal Aid B.C. indicates.

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Access to devices ­and online services — a computer, tablet or smartphone, airtime or a data plan, the ability to navigate the internet, the skill to interact with meeting programs or self-serve websites, and a safe, private place to engage — have all become indispensable as a result of health orders.

For the poor and less literate, however, these can also be major impediments.

Pandemic restrictions have forced the delivery of fundamental services such as health, education and justice to migrate online, while trust in the Internet has simultaneously diminished among many, and the fallout is worrying, particularly in B.C.

For Legal Aid, the pivot wasn’t difficult because the non-profit agency long ago embraced technology out of necessity — the catalyst 20 years ago wasn’t COVID, but savage budget and staff reductions.

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Ever since, it has focused on digitally providing services, how-to information and do-it-yourself guides — its MyLawBC website is a great example.

B.C., too, is a digital hothouse — the cloud-based, case-management software firm Clio started here, winning approval from the Law Society and now collaborating with the U.S. Legal Services Corp.

There is no question that technology can increase access to justice, but COVID transformed Internet access from an option to physical, face-to-face resources and engagement into an essential lifeline.

With the web unexpectedly now the main gateway for fundamental justice, health care, education and social needs, Legal Aid launched a year-long study on the repercussions.

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The data, research and preliminary findings were published recently, and summarized in a 38-page report, Achieving Digital Equity in Access to Justice , sparking broad discussion even in the U.K. where legal and technology writer Roger Smith drew attention to the work.

Author Kate Murray and researchers conducted surveys, interviewed those using web-based resources, and talked with legal-aid staff, community workers, elders, and other service providers.

More than 850 individuals participated — 225 with lower household incomes, 165 with very low income, and 186 with moderate to high incomes.

Most were receptive to getting legal information or help online, but, as always, real-life intervened and other dynamics intruded — personal competencies, economic circumstances, personal safety, the need for privacy to discuss intimate conflicts or embarrassing situations.

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In focus groups and survey comments, those in rural areas commonly described Internet service quality as unreliable, often too slow or not robust enough, and too expensive — especially on isolated First Nations reserves.

“In our community worker survey, only 21 per cent of respondents indicated that all or most of their clients had reliable Internet at home, and many described how their clients did not have access to printers or scanners,” Murray reported.

“Workers emphasized that their clients who experience deep poverty, especially people experiencing homelessness or those with precarious housing, struggle to maintain any access to a functional phone, a data plan, or even electricity for charging.”

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In other cases, some people could only afford limited forms of access that were cumbersome and frustrating — for example, older or broken devices, slow Internet, limited data, text-to-mail services, and prepaid plans they could not always afford to maintain.

Half of those in low-income households confessed they couldn’t afford or didn’t have the skills, facility with or trust in computers and the web to get the full benefit of online resources and services.

Those deficiencies reportedly hampered far fewer of the more affluent families — barely one in five.

Half of the lower-income Indigenous households reported such barriers — a rate nearly twice that of non-Indigenous residents. They were two to three times more likely to report they could not afford Internet, data or sufficient devices; that they didn’t have a computer, laptop, cellphone, or tablet; or that they didn’t have Internet access at home.

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The report found that across the board poor people, seniors, those with physical challenges or mental health issues, the gender-diverse, new immigrants, refugees, Indigenous people and minorities disproportionately complained of affordability and other barriers to Internet use.

“In addition to digital divides, many people are also impacted by access-to-justice issues such as unaffordable legal fees, the technical nature of legal processes, and stress or trauma,” Murray concluded.

Existing hurdles constraining access to justice have been heightened, she noted.

“The younger and more affluent the user, the better they can generally deal with digital. But we have to recognize and plan for the fact that many people who have low incomes and feel marginalized, do not have access to digital information or are unable to use it.”

Not surprisingly, Internet interaction was most effective when used in combination with “knowledgeable, trauma-informed, one-to-one legal help.”

And most people still want a human response to their problem.

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