Off-Line and Underrepresented:
The Legal Community’s Responsibility to Navigate
the Technology Gap During COVID-19 and Beyond
Jamie VandenOever is P.R. and Marketing Chair of the Women’s Law Caucus, V.P. of Communications for the Triangle Bar Association, and an Assoc. Editor for the Animal and Natural Resource Law Review
According to a PEW Research study conducted in October of 2020, 87% of Americans believe that the Internet is important, with 53% of those same Americans believing that the Internet is essential to everyday life. As more and more counties and states enforce the Stay-At-Home orders on its citizens, the more the legal community has seen the appearance of Zoom Court. If you don’t happen to be familiar with such proceedings, I’ll take the time to paint you a picture.
Instead of making your way to the courthouse, you find yourself at the chair you have deemed your “computer chair.” You have your coffee in your hands as you wait for the never ending “Zoom Waiting Room” function to finally let you into the room. You are at the mercy of the judge or clerk to let you in, but as opposed to being in a physical courtroom to witness the hold-up, you have to trust that your waiting will end soon as you stare at a loading screen. It is a high level of trust mixed in with the faint memories of this certain judge liking to take their time with each case. Eventually the loading screen fades away as you enter the room and see the faces you have come to miss- the colleagues you work with, or maybe your favorite bailiff. Once you’re in the courtroom, sure it may be different, but it certainly feels a little bit like some normalcy returning.
As you may have noticed already, there was no acknowledgment of your client. That’s because your client won’t be able to make it to court today. The library where they would have accessed the Internet is closed. Or they might be fortunate enough to have had Internet access at home, but it has been months since they have been able to pay that bill since facing unemployment due to COVID-19. Perhaps they did show up briefly in the Zoom courtroom but their Wi-Fi cut-out and they never made it back in time for their case to be heard. Maybe they are an elderly client who has never had to use the Internet and could not figure out how it should work before the judge finds they failed to appear. Possibly that client could not have understood what was expected of them, as all that they received taped to their apartment’s front door was a Zoom Meeting Code and meeting time. Admittedly, just a Zoom ID and password is a far cry from complete instructions and information on resources that could assist the client.
These are not the exceptions that one could only anticipate on a bad day. Amongst the Zoom Courtrooms I have worked, not a day would not go by without at least five to ten people not appearing for their day in court. How can we justify not serving those ten people that day? Those 50 people a week? They do not have reliable Internet access, or cannot make it in-person to explain that situation to the judge in fear of losing the one thing they might have still: their health. The justice system has long been criticized for being a system that requires payment upon entry. COVID-19, however, solidified that the “ticket to ride” is now a strong Internet connection, a device to access the Internet with that has audio and video capabilities, and the further resources on the Internet to even discuss their legal options with an attorney or a legal aid organization, such as E-mail and access to a web browser.
Many boast of the efficiency that can be accomplished through Zoom hearings. The number of hearings that can be done is an impressive feat. In the state of Michigan alone over one million hours of Zoom Courtroom hearings had been completed, and by extension an incredible caseload had been accomplished. But is this accomplishment being done at the expense of those left behind in the Technology Gap? The legal system should constantly be fighting against the inability of underserved populations from accessing their rights to legal representation and legal assistance. However, it seems to have become a forgotten lesson that not everyone will be sitting in that Zoom Waiting Room with you. Some may be facing eviction from their homes and be staring at their bills instead. Some may have no ability to reach out to you for assistance, or have any idea where to begin without the legal offices being open to public visits.
It is on the legal profession to begin acting for the community again, even when at a distance. There needs to be opportunities for these individuals being thrust into the legal system to have access to the Internet. There should be a phone number attached to all notices of service with remote participation that individuals can call for technological help. Each of those assistance lines should also have computers, tablets, or other devices with audio and video capabilities that can be rented out for hearings and conversations with attorneys. Additionally, there should be a duty to provide more opportunities to individuals to have reliable Internet access, such as courthouses that provide COVID-19 regulation compliant “Internet Cafes” in unused rooms in the buildings. The individuals can bring or borrow electronics to participate in the hearings and not have to be in a room with other individuals as to ensure higher safety precautions and make those individuals feel safer. Another alternative could be listing out other locations that reliably provide Internet access, providing free or reduced price Internet services (not dissimilar to what major Internet providers have offered for school children) to those who need such assistance.
Finally, there should be more information and training given to those of us in the legal system that might not be familiar with the Technology Gap and the hindrances that it creates on those we aim to serve. Training on how to effectively use new softwares, how to instruct others to use it when asked for assistance, and how to take other conscious actions to ensure individuals are not prevented from justice because of the Technology Gap that has grown larger in this socially distanced world. The world looks different now for many reasons, but the legal field has a responsibility to those we serve to ensure that it stays vigilant in its fight for representation for all- even those who are off-line.
 PEW Research Center, 53% of Americans Say the Internet Has Been Essential During the COVID-19 Outbreak, PEW Research Center Internet & Technology (Apr. 30, 2020), https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2020/04/30/53-of-americans-say-the-internet-has-been-essential-during-the-covid-19-outbreak/.
 Nevin, J., Michigan’s Justice System Reaches 1 Million Hours of Zoom Hearings ‘Virtual courtrooms’ keeping the doors of justice open during pandemic, Michigan Courts News Release (Sept. 17, 2020), https://courts.michigan.gov/News-Events/press_releases/Documents/1%20Million%20Zoom%20Hours%20news%20release.pdf#search=%22zoom%20hours%22.
 Ramos, M., COVID-19 could widen the digital gap. Here’s what’s needed now, World Economic Forum (July 30, 2020), https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/07/covid-19-could-widen-the-digital-gap-here-is-what-is-needed-now/.
 Cantu, D. A., Initiatives to close the digital divide must last beyond the COVID-19 pandemic to work, The Conversation (Oct. 27, 2020), https://theconversation.com/initiatives-to-close-the-digital-divide-must-last-beyond-the-covid-19-pandemic-to-work-146663.
 United Nations, Digital Divide ‘a Matter of Life and Death’ amid COVID-19 Crisis, Secretary‑General Warns Virtual Meeting, Stressing Universal Connectivity Key for Health, Development, Statements and Messages from the Secretary General (June 11, 2020), https://www.un.org/press/en/2020/sgsm20118.doc.htm.
Get new content delivered directly to your inbox.