Access to Justice in Rural and Remote Communities: Where to From Here?

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.


  1. Great article, Jamie.
    Is this happening in BC? “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.”
    I’d be interested to know more.

  2. Jamie Maclaren

    Thanks, Susan.

    Yes, as far as we are informed at Access Pro Bono by lawyers and clients alike, that assertion describes the present situation in some parts of BC. By such accounts, lawyers in more “rural” and under-served communities like Prince George and Prince Rupert are able to command very high billable rates because of the lack of accessible competition. This is particularly true of family lawyers. And we know that many lawyers in Vancouver, on the other hand, are advertising very low billable rates in order to obtain some initial local market share. So it goes with supply and demand dynamics, it seems.

  3. Hello Jamie –

    I think you rightly point to technology offering, in part, a solution to providing affordable online legal services.

    Last week, at the Ontario Justice Summit, there was a presentation by Dr. Edward Brown on the Ontario Telemedicine Network (OTN). Although it could seem strange to have a presentation like this at a Justice Summit, there are many parallels that can be drawn between medical systems and legal systems across Canada. Case in point, Dr. Brown has successfully built with OTN a network that encompassed, last year, the delivery of over 35,000 remote medical consultations over 2,200 telemedicine systems… and an important focus of the OTN is the delivery of medical service in the North / rural Ontario.

    The onus is therefore on us to imagine how to reshape the delivery of Justice services remotely, while protecting legal safeguards in criminal and civil proceedings. This is an interesting challenge that I look forward to tackling in collaboration with Justice stakeholders across Canada.

    Patrick Cormier
    Canadian Centre for Court Technology

  4. Jamie Maclaren


    Thanks for drawing attention to OTN. It’s not surprising that Canada’s medical community is already reaping rewards from basic technology that Canada’s legal community has barely noticed or at least adopted. If effective remote medical consultations can occur in such numbers despite the obvious inability for personal contact, then surely remote legal consultations and their mostly intellectual exercises should be a cinch.

    Generally speaking, it would be wonderful if more parallels were drawn between Canada’s medical systems and legal systems. We are all too well aware that legal problems do not exist in isolation of medical and social problems, and that one problem often amplifies another at a compound cost to governments. It would be great if governments would recognize this important dynamic and invest more funds and attention in legal aid and new technological systems for the widespread delivery of critical legal services. Maybe that day is coming.

  5. Law Students for a Fair Profession

    Hello: I published a response to this on my blog. Interesting ideas. Peace, LSFFP.