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Report: Remote Courts Must Consider Digital Literacy, Access

Following interviews with 27 people who work directly in the country’s courts systems, a new study has found that digitizing the courts may exclude residents on the wrong side of the digital divide.

For people who lack a computer or strong computer skills, putting court proceedings online can cause an added layer of problems, a new report has found.

The report — dubbed Cut Off From the Courthouse: How the Digital Divide Impacts Access to Justice and Civic Engagement — compiled interviews with 27 public defenders, family attorneys, community organizers and others who engaged with the U.S. court system. It found that court proceedings and other public forums that have moved online have the potential to leave out residents who are already on the other side of the digital divide.

This report is the work of Next Century Cities — a nonprofit coalition of towns that work on getting people connected to broadband — in conjunction with the Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Law.

“The increase in exclusively online services accelerated by the pandemic has left a lasting mark on the way that residents across the U.S. participate in democracy, access public services and exercise their rights in court,” said Corian Zacher, senior policy counsel at Next Century Cities, in a statement. “Without equitable connectivity to accompany the transition, barriers to legal and civic participation will continue to pose insurmountable obstacles for already disadvantaged residents.”

In addition to the report, Next Century Cities also published a blog post with high-level takeaways for local government from its findings. The list of those includes being sure to prioritize both access and adoption; partnering with community groups; and supporting enrollment in existing broadband subsidy programs that some folks in the community might not know about. These are all generally considered best practices within the rapidly evolving field of government digital inclusion work.

Putting some court proceedings online, however, also has the potential to be more inclusive, especially as it pertains to residents with mobility challenges or workers who can’t afford to take time off work for a physical trip to the courthouse. Online dispute resolution, in particular, has been praised by experts as a way to make courts more accessible for residents as well as more efficient.

With that potential in mind, this issue becomes a sort of design challenge, said Javier Trujillo, chief assistant director for the Department of Information Services and Technology in Marin County, in a recent phone conversation with Government Technology. There are many factors for public officials to consider when digitizing court proceedings, chief among them digital literacy. For example, online systems that require using an email address for registering or for receiving email can be exclusionary.

“For a lot of the communities that are underserved, email addresses are not the center of communication as they are in the corporate world,” Trujillo said.

This doesn’t mean that court systems should entirely avoid remote hearings or digital methods to make them more efficient. It just means that officials charged with overseeing such projects should be aware of the potential for exclusion, as their communities continue working to foster digital equity.

This article first appeared in Government Technology, sister publication to Techwire.
Zack Quaintance is the assistant news editor for Government Technology magazine. His background includes writing for daily newspapers across the country and developing content for a software company in Austin, Texas.