Urban Wire More Access to Broadband and Public Transit Can Lead to a More Equitable Civil Justice System
Sandra Ambrozy
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For decades, our civil justice system has been inaccessible and inequitable to millions of people. These inequalities have only grown more severe during the COVID-19 pandemic, even as that system has become more essential for addressing them.

Although many structural and systemic barriers remain, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal could enhance equitable access to civil justice by expanding the ways people engage with the system and increasing access to those options.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted structural barriers in the civil justice system

The civil justice system is designed to help people protect their safety, family, health, and housing through laws that endow them with rights and protections. Eviction, domestic violence, consumer fraud (PDF), job discrimination and wage theft, child custody (PDF) and child support all fall within the civil legal system. When people have equitable access to civil justice, they can get what they need, when they need it, through a fair process. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, courts, civil legal aid organizations, and other justice organizations turned to technology-based solutions to maintain their operations. Technology is helping modernize the civil legal system, allowing people to submit paperwork electronically and to attend court remotely.

Although these changes are here to stay, they cannot be used unless all people have access to broadband and the internet. More than 30 million Americans, particularly those in rural communities, live in areas without quality broadband infrastructure, and Black and Latinx adults are nearly twice as likely as white adults to lack broadband access. 

But even in a world where everyone has access to broadband, some court activities will have to happen in person. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, getting to court by public transportation was difficult for many. And as a result of the pandemic, fewer people are using public transportation options, leading to line closures and reduced service times.

These effects have not been felt equally, with communities of color more likely to take public transportation even though many lack sufficient transit options. If a court appearance is required, unreliable transportation may cause a person to be late for their hearing or to miss it entirely, which could result in them losing their case.

Investments from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal can increase access to the civil justice system

In the recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal, Congress has earmarked $65 billion for investments in broadband infrastructure and $89.9 billion in funding for public transit over the next five years. The bill also includes legislation to also help lower prices for internet services. Overall, these investments will give many people better access to the tools and information they need to protect their families, health, homes, and livelihood. 

Research has shown that to further access and equity, policymakers can invest in digital literacy and security measures to protect privacy rights. And for investments in public transit, policymakers can inform their decisions with data that examines affordability as well as accessibility for people with disabilities.

Finally, for the bill to truly increase equity in the civil justice system, these investments must go beyond simply making a bad system more accessible. Significant transformations are already occurring in the civil justice system to make it more fair and equitable. Innovations such as LIFT Wisconsin’s Legal Tune Up, which relies on internet access, connects people with public data to resolve their civil legal issues without an attorney. As Marsha Mansfield, director of LIFT Wisconsin, wrote in an opinion piece, “Access to justice is core to the effective functioning of our democracy.” 

For policymakers to ensure that the civil justice system continues to serve all people, the investments in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal should be implemented in a way that ends, rather than augments, inequity.

The Urban Institute has the evidence to show what it will take to create a society where everyone has a fair shot at achieving their vision of success. 

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Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Infrastructure Crime and justice analytics
Policy Centers Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy
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