It is a well-documented and oft-lamented fact that the problem of limited access to justice is far worse in the rural and remote areas of Canada than in its cities and suburbs. Previous Slaw blog entries have outlined the multitude of distance-related obstacles that prevent many rural and small-town Canadians from finding quick and affordable resolutions to their legal problems. Geographic restrictions do not apply to legal problems, however. Wherever you find personal and business relationships, you will find legal problems. They stretch freely across the country—from “sea to sea to sea,” as Canadian politicians like to say these days.
In order to give manageable form to the issue, the problem of limited access to justice is often deconstructed and then approached again as a problem of limited access to legal services. The usual theory posits that consumer demand for affordable legal services far outstrips the supply of affordable legal service providers, more so in rural and remote areas. There are seemingly not enough lawyers, paralegals and notaries to go around. Eminently wise judges and academics have said so. They have called for a greater number of law students to be admitted to a greater number of law schools, for paralegals and notaries to have a greater share of the legal market, and for a greater number of incentives for legal service providers to set up shop in small communities.
But is the common supply-and-demand assessment entirely true? It is at least mostly true. There is no question that the legal profession is greying. In British Columbia, the average age of practicing lawyers is over 48, with nearly 20% being 60 years of age or older. There is no question that many small Canadian cities and towns are doing without a sufficient number of lawyers. Indeed, some vast regions— like the far northern parts of most provinces— are doing without any lawyers at all. And there is no question that a disproportionate number of legal service providers are choosing to practice in Canada’s large cities rather than in its small communities. These conditions have led to distorted legal markets in rural areas where, for example, the only lawyer for miles around can charge double or triple the billable rate of his/her big city counterpart.
The latter issue is likely as much about connectivity as it is about supply of lawyers. We know that there are sizeable numbers of unemployed and under-employed lawyers residing (if not necessarily working) in large urban areas. Canadian law societies and bar associations are doing their best to convince these lawyers to move their practices to more fertile rural ground. Some projects like the Canadian Bar Association – BC Branch’s Rural Education and Access to Lawyers Program (REAL) have achieved notable success in this regard. Other recent developments, like the establishment of a law school at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops with the mandate to encourage its graduates to practice law in small communities, aim to address the problem as well. But try as they might, these and other initiatives are unlikely to correct the severe imbalance in distribution of lawyers across urban and rural areas. For all their respect for the law, Canadian lawyers seem unwilling to respect Fick’s Law which states that objects are compelled to move from areas of high concentration to areas of low concentration.
So the question is: How can unemployed and under-employed urban lawyers provide their valuable (and ostensibly affordable) legal services to under-served rural consumers? In a globalized age when complex corporate legal work is being outsourced to India, and the world’s largest law firms have offices in several continents, the answer ought to be simple. The answer is simple, at least, for the purposes of Canada’s organized pro bono service providers who are forced to find ways to deliver critical legal services to low-income individuals residing in areas where no lawyers practice. These pro bono organizations are connecting lawyers and their remote clients via peer-to-peer videoconferencing applications like Skype, and via the good, old-fashioned telephone. In this basic legal advice model using Skype, a client finds a private and secure computer (often at a local social agency) or smartphone, and connects to a pro bono lawyer sitting in front of his/her office computer. Ongoing solicitor-client interviews and exchanges then occur via pre-arranged Skype appointments, with PDF documents travelling back and forth, and with the advantage of both parties being able to record and locally archive their exchanges using a screencasting application.
In 2011, the remote provision of legal services via videoconferencing technology is nothing new or revolutionary. But it is surely underused as a business tool. With the advent and increasing adoption of e-discoveries, e-mediations and even e-trials in many Canadian jurisdictions, little seems to stand in the way of tech-savvy lawyers marketing their services in faraway under-served places, and thus building highly profitable online practices. Such practices must overcome small regulatory obstacles relating to proper client identification and document execution, but the offsetting advantages are significant; they avoid the high overhead costs associated with conventional bricks-and-mortar businesses, and they are environment-friendly because of their mostly paperless operation.
The proliferation of affordable online legal services will not solve the problem of limited access to legal services in rural and remote communities. It is a complex problem and, like most complex problems, it requires complex solutions. The most effective solution will always involve a greater number of lawyers and other legal service providers bringing their services physically closer to under-served markets, since consumers still prefer the warmth and certainty of in-person communications. But bridging geographical gaps will forever be a struggle across these “few acres of snow”, and the potential for online legal services to increase the accessibility of affordable legal services in all regions of Canada seems largely untapped.