In yet another article on the problem of access to justice for the rural poor, Jamie Maclaren, executive director of Access Pro Bono BC, argues that online technologies might be the solution.
The idea to focus on e-services has some merit, I’m not going to dispute that. But, insofar as the idea involves matching work starved new lawyers with poor rural clients, it seems seriously flawed for at least two reasons.
First, new lawyers, who are over represented in the pool of under and un-employed lawyers, aren’t at a place in their careers where they can just set up shop and start working as sole practitioners. They don’t have the knowledge, experience or confidence required to provide the services that the clients need.
Second, online law practices involve working in isolation. This means that unlike more traditional arrangements where a lawyer rents an office in a space with other lawyers who can answer questions if they arise, the online business requires a service provider who’s able to work alone.
This suggests that while online law businesses might be viable for more seasoned members of the bar they are not likely to be used by brand new members of the profession.
Mr. Maclaren suggests that another solution to the access to justice problem would be to increase the number of lawyers. The theory that the problem is one of inadequate supply to meet demand is, according to Mr. Maclaren, “…at least mostly true”. I strongly disagree that increasing the number of lawyers would solve the access to justice problem.
According to the Report of the Delivery of Legal Services Task Force for the Benchers of the Law Society of British Columbia, released in December 2009:
“The median net economic worth of the lowest 20% of the Canadian population is $1,000, and that of the next quintile is $37,000. The amount of that wealth that is liquid enough to exchange for legal services is obviously less…For a great many of these people it will be irrelevant that there is a legal service provider charging $50 an hour as opposed to $250 an hour if it means selling the car they require for work, or not buying clothes and food for their children” (emphasis mine)
The demand isn’t for cheaper legal services it’s for highly discounted or free legal services. Recent grads like myself who pay $730 a month in student loans plus over $200 a month in law society fees can’t afford to work for little or nothing without going into poverty ourselves.
More poverty isn’t a solution to the poverty that’s already out there.
Poor people don’t need cheaper legal services, they need heavily discounted or free legal services, which can’t be provided by debt strapped new lawyers. A fully funded legal aid system is the only solution.