As we marvel about the power of the internet to change lives and deliver access to legal services we forget one important factor. For affluent users in urban areas with high connectivity levels, the web has become part of everyday life. Elsewhere, the picture can be very different; some regions have limited coverage and the appetite for online exploration is just not as developed, with significantly fewer households having internet access.
The internet undoubtedly has an important role to play in achieving greater access to justice. Much as the government’s plans have been derided for lumping together legal aid reforms, general access to legal advice and early dispute resolution, these plans rightly highlight that neither of these issues should be considered in isolation.
These access to justice reforms also place online tools at the heart of solution. This is the right approach too. The trouble is, they rely heavily on the assumption that technology is available to everybody across the whole of Britain. The flaw is apparent in a number of instances even before we start thinking in terms of mobile internet, smartphones and legal apps.
Take the telephone gateway, which the government wants to be the first port of call for civil legal aid. It is a clever idea on paper but it ignores the reality from the point of view of the individual. With advice centres and CABx under increased threat as a result of budget cuts, vulnerable clients could feel so uncomfortable discussing their problems over the phone that they could choose not to raise them altogether.
There is a more mundane reality: even in 2012, not everybody has reliable access to a telephone. Claimants pushed towards the internet will face an even greater hurdle. According to the Office for National Statistics, 8.2m adults had never used the internet by the end of 2011. This figure is gradually going down – the ONS says the over 65s, the widowed and the disabled were the most likely to not have used the internet – but it still represents 16.3 per cent of the adult population.
Cost is another major obstacle. Eight per cent of adults in full-time employment paid under £200 a week did not use the internet. Only where you reach a salary level of £800 a week – that’s £41,000 pa – are there no non-internet users.
A heatmap of online Britain provides further detail of the likely inequalities if web-based services become the main channel for the delivery of access to justice. London and the Midlands are the most connected areas, but East Anglia, most of the South West and the North East are still way behind. It is a digital mirror image of the lack of transport infrastructure these areas already suffer from.
Ten years ago the concern was over legal aid deserts developing in these areas. These could simply be replaced by digital legal services blackholes if the internet is not made more easily accessible to those seeking legal assistance. Attitude and the ability to embrace the new is one thing but cost is still a significant obstacle.
The lack of 3G signal in the Highlands is refreshing if you go there for a week to escape the London rat race. But it’s a serious obstacle if, as a matter of government policy, the web become the first port of call to access legal services. Those who might be most in need of advice could become the ones least able to access it.
Jean-Yves Gilg is editor of Solicitors Journal (email@example.com)
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