Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
– Martin Luther King

For some time, we (the legal profession) have collectively wrung our hands over the access to justice (A2J) problem in the US and elsewhere. But that’s about all we have done: despite all our consternation, there has been little real progress. And now that gap may be about to significantly widen.

Fundamentally, there simply can’t be much access to justice without access to the Internet. Indeed, there can’t be much access to the American dream at all without reliable internet access. Yet that access for millions of people who without assistance could not afford it is about to be cut off.

Last Friday, CNN reported that the FCC announced that the Affordable Connectivity Program, which provided financial assistance to low-income people to be online, was being terminated. This Program helped tens of millions afford internet service.

Why is the Program ending? No money. The ever vigilant Republicans in the House of Representatives, perhaps fearing that the impacted people were more likely to vote Democratic, refused to approve additional funding this spring. Their attitude was summed up by Sen. Ted Cruz as quoted in BroadBand Breakfast: we should “not…impose higher taxes on millions of hard-working Americans to cover the internet bills of their neighbors who are already willing and able to pay for it themselves.” Like many proclamations of this ilk, this one comes with scant proof that the ACP was being abused.

This refusal led the FCC, which managed the Program, to announce termination last Friday.

CNN has previously reported that this termination will affect nearly 60 million people. That’s one in five Americans. The Program provided a monthly credit on Internet bills to those eligible, worth up to $75 per month, and as much as $75 per month to those on tribal lands. Congress originally approved the Program with a $14 billion budget.

The only good news out of this is that several internet service providers—AY&T, Comcast, Cox, Spectrum, and Verizon announced plans to help cover some of those affected. But not all.

What does this mean? Internet bills for those affected will immediately go up, which means some number of them will drop internet service because they can’t afford it.

Congressman André Carson (IN-07), who called for the continuation of funding, said it best: “High-quality, affordable, and high-speed internet access is necessary to succeed in our 21st-century economy,”.

The Access To Justice Gap

There is no question our A2J problems are significant.

The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) contracted with the University of Chicago to help measure the justice gap among low-income Americans in 2022. The result: “Low income Americans did not receive any or enough legal help for 92% of their civil legal problems.” 

80% below the poverty line and more than ½ of those in the middle class—the people who need legal help the most cannot get access to even modest legal advice on serious issues like custody, divorce and criminal questions. They have no representation for employment issues, issues relating to the place they live, or issues involving their children. Far too many women are denied access to the court system to, for example, seek a restraining order against an abuser.

Concerns about the cost of legal help stand out as an important barrier to seeking and receiving legal help. According to the study, almost 1/2 of those not seeking legal help cite cost concerns as the reason. More than one-half doubt their ability to find a lawyer they could afford if they needed one.

We won’t solve the A2J problem without better access to online resources for low-income people.

Internet Access and A2J

According to Pew Research, about 43% of adults with household incomes below $30,000 already do not have home broadband services, and 41% do not own a desktop or laptop computer. As a result, many low-income individuals lack the necessary tools to access online legal resources, file documents electronically, or attend virtual court hearings.

We won’t solve the A2J problem without better access to online resources for low-income people. We can’t reduce the cost of legal services without reliance on online tools and services. We can’t reduce the disruption that participation in the legal system generates, a disruption that falls disproportionally on the poor, without the internet. Without the ability to access our court systems remotely. Low-income people need online resources to help solve their legal problems. To answer their questions. We talk a lot about Artificial intelligence programs and Gen AI as a tremendous opportunity to narrow the gap, but these tools can do very little without internet access.

The longer the A2J problem festers and grows, the less respect a large swath of our citizens will have for our rule of law. That’s scary for everyone, not just those those without means.

That is why the failure of our system to fund the ACP is so tragic.