An article in the most recent ABA Litigation Journal highlights the unique role of lawyers in leveraging the Internet to increase access to justice by constructing the “justice layer” of the internet.
If we want to do more than witness the process unfold, we must consciously and actively build the justice layer of the Internet. Globally, this means we must not only reinvent how we make law in cyberspace but also catalyze the creation of justice-related technologies.
The authors propose that the widespread availability of access to information through traditional computing and mobile devices has the potential to increase access to justice in “real time, across borders, across disciplines, and across a huge mass of stakeholders.” This “justice layer” of the internet may better meet the needs of those navigating the justice system who might otherwise not have the funds to afford resources or representation.
However, it is clear that technology is not a simple fix for closing the justice gap. Access to justice is not a novel or isolated problem, but rather a pervasive and complex issue that requires not only technological innovation but changes in the legal system itself.
The Justice Index, a project of the National Center for Access to Justice at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, chronicles the impact of emerging technologies and access to justice.
New data from the 2016 Justice Index released last month evaluates the performance of each state in implementing best practices in their civil justice systems. The index analyzed programs and policies from the number of legal aid attorneys per capita, the availability of resources for people representing themselves in legal matters, language assistance for non-English speakers, and support for individuals with disabilities.
Each state—plus Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico—received individual scores in those four areas and a composite score for all four combined. At the top of the list, representing the most access and availability: Washington D.C., Massachusetts, and Hawaii. At the bottom: Missouri, Puerto Rico, Wyoming.
David Udell, the National Center for Access to Justice’s executive director, says that the biggest story in the 2016 Index is the progress courts have made to help individuals who do not have lawyers. Nearly half of all state allow judges to help people represent themselves in court and 20 states now encourage the use of plain English in the courtroom rather than legalese.
While the data tells a story of some progress in adopting tools and programs to make justice more accessible, some of its findings show much less improvement. There is less than one legal aid lawyer for every 10,000 low-income Americans who qualify for legal aid, leaving anyone who can’t afford a lawyer to fend for themselves in a country with one of the highest concentrations of lawyers in the world.
The legal field’s recent progress in leveraging new technology to increase access to justice is welcome, but, as the Index makes clear, the profession has a long way to go.