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Ian Mulgrew: Online migration of social services raises equity concerns

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Report: “The younger and more affluent the user, the better they can generally manage digitally. But we need to recognize and plan for the fact that many low-income people who feel marginalized do not have access to digital information or are impossible to use.”

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The online delivery of key social services triggered by COVID is exacerbating the digital divide created by economic disparity and impeding access to justice, according to research by Legal Aid BC.

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Access to devices and online services – a computer, tablet or smartphone, airtime or a data plan, the ability to browse the internet, the ability to interact with meeting programs or self-service websites, and a safe and private place to engage – have all become essential in the wake of health orders.

For the poor and less literate, however, it can also be a major obstacle.

Pandemic restrictions have forced the delivery of fundamental services such as health, education and justice to migrate online, while internet trust has simultaneously declined among many, and the fallout is worrying, particularly in British Columbia.

For legal aid, the pivot hasn’t been difficult as the nonprofit agency has long embraced technology out of necessity — the catalyst 20 years ago wasn’t COVID, but budget cuts and brutal staff.

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Since then he has focused on providing digital services, how-to information and DIY guides – his MyLawBC website is a great example.

British Columbia is also a digital hotbed – cloud-based case management software company Clio started here, gained Law Society approval, and is now collaborating with US Legal Services Corp.

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

With the Web unexpectedly becoming the primary gateway for basic justice, health care, education and social needs, Legal Aid launched a year-long study of the impact.

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The data, research and preliminary findings were recently published and summarized in a 38-page report, Achieving digital equity in access to justice , sparking wide discussion even in the UK where the legal and tech writer Roger Smith drew attention to the work.

Author Kate Murray and researchers conducted surveys, interviewed people using web resources, and spoke with legal aid staff, community workers, elders, and other service providers.

More than 850 people participated — 225 with lower family incomes, 165 with very low incomes and 186 with middle to high incomes.

Most were receptive to the idea of ​​getting legal information or help online, but, as always, real life kicked in and other dynamics came into play – personal skills, economic circumstances, personal security, need confidentiality to discuss intimate conflicts or embarrassing situations.

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In focus groups and survey feedback, rural residents generally described the quality of Internet service as unreliable, often too slow or not robust enough, and too expensive, especially on isolated First Nations reserves.

“In our survey of community workers, only 21% 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 to scanners,” Murray said.

“Workers have pointed out that their clients who live in deep poverty, particularly those who are homeless or in insecure housing, struggle to maintain access to a working phone, data plan, or even wireless. ‘electricity for recharging.’

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In other cases, some people could only afford limited, cumbersome and frustrating forms of access – for example, older or broken devices, slow internet, limited data, text messaging services and prepaid plans that they couldn’t always afford to maintain. .

Half of people from low-income households said they could not afford or did not have the skills, ease or confidence in computers and the web to take full advantage of resources and services in line.

These deficiencies would have hampered far fewer wealthier families – just one in five.

Half of low-income Indigenous households reported such barriers – a rate nearly double that of non-Indigenous residents. They were two to three times more likely to say they could not afford access to the internet, data or enough devices; that they did not have a computer, laptop, mobile phone or tablet; or that they did not have internet access at home.

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The report found that overall the poor, the elderly, those with physical challenges or mental health issues, people of diverse genders, new immigrants, refugees, Indigenous peoples and minorities complained disproportionately about affordability and other barriers to internet use.

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

Existing barriers that limit access to justice have been reinforced, she noted.

“The younger and more affluent the user, the better they can generally handle digital. But we must recognize and plan for the fact that many low-income people who 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 “trauma-informed, knowledgeable one-on-one legal support.”

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

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