There is no doubt that residents of rural communities in Canada face greater access to justice limitations than their urban dwelling counterparts. In the last column we explored one such limitation, being reduced access to legal advice and legal advocacy due to a comparatively smaller number of lawyers practicing in rural areas. As we discussed, this is a trend that is forecast to get even worse in the near future. In addition to challenges in regards to legal advice and legal advocacy however, rural communities face additional challenges in another important access to justice factor, that being access to legal information.
The rise of the internet over the last two decades has fundamentally changed the manner in which people access information. This can clearly be seen in the legal field where individuals no longer have to attend a library and search through dusty volumes in order to access the legal information they are seeking. Providers of public legal education and information in Canada have embraced the electronic medium and legal information provided on the internet has become an increasingly important way to assist the public with their legal issues. This can be seen by the popularity of sites such as Clicklaw in British Columbia which contains content from 24 different legal organizations ranging from the Ministry of the Attorney General to the BC Civil Liberties Association. Other similar legal information services exist across the country including ACJNet in Alberta, The Legal Information Society in Nova Scotia, and Legal Line. Due to a marked disparity in the level of connectivity across the country however, access to this legal information is not uniform for all individuals in Canada.
The challenges inherent in providing equal access to legal information were acknowledged in a 2005 report of the Public Legal Education and Information Working Group in British Columbia. This report identified a number of gaps in regards to access to legal information including serious challenges relating to technology for those living in smaller communities. The report noted that “Technology is not uniform throughout the province and there are many areas that no not have high speed internet.” A lack of an internet connection and specifically a high speed broadband connection that allows the quick transfer of large amounts of information, is integral to the ability to access the many useful legal information resources that have been made available by public legal education and information providers. For many in rural communities however, this is not a reality.
At the end of 2007 the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission reported that while 93 percent of Canadian households had broadband access, a significant gap exists in regards to rural households with less than 81 percent having such access. The lack of broadband access in rural communities has become a topic of interest for the Federal Government and in 2009 the Prime Minister announced a strategy to expand broadband access to the unserved and underserved regions of the country. In making the announcement Stephen Harper acknowledged that “The potential benefits of expanded broadband services are enormous, particularly for the thousands of Canadians who live in rural and remote communities.” Since the announcement, projects in 75 communities across the country have been approved and are expected to result in broadband access for thousands of people in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador.
The weight of government support and dollars is an important development in ensuring equal access to broadband services across Canada. The impact of these services on access to justice is significant for residents of rural Canada and will likely become even more important as providers of legal information and legal services seek new ways to serve rural communities that are increasingly losing lawyers in their communities to retirement.