Josh joined Pro Bono Net as Legal Content and Network Support Assistant during May and June 2020, with a focus on supporting Pro Bono Net’s COVID-19 response efforts. Josh graduated from Brown in December 2019, where he majored in history. He has experience in policy research and advocacy at the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, (a now inactive website he founded to track NYPD crime data), and at the New York City Council. Josh has written a three-part blog series on the digital divide. Here is part 3: 

The Digital Divide touches all aspects of Pro Bono Net’s work. Millions of Americans can’t access remote only services, or don’t have access to resources in their language. The gap is especially wide for low-income, Black and Latino, and rural communities. Still, with courts and brick and mortar legal support limited and closed over the past five months, PBN’s 20-state LawHelp network of statewide legal information websites have seen increased use over the last five months, with 20 percent more users than over the same period last year, and LawHelpNY’s LiveHelp use has increased significantly during the pandemic.  

To reach underserved Americans, especially communities that disproportionately lack internet access, PBN programs work to advance digital equity. PBN advocates for a “no wrong door” approach to how people can access or seek legal service, with online options increasing and complementing, not replacing, phone, in-person and other “traditional” access methods. Our work uses remote access legal support strategies to supplement and extend brick and mortar legal services. We work with legal aid and community partners to reach underserved communities, provide language access and plain language resources, and to build trust, representation, and to protect our users’ data and communicate that in plain-language privacy terms. 

PBN works with legal aid and community partners to co-design tools and service models. We teams up with trusted community partner networks that serve as the “on-ramp” to the digital service. One great example of this on-ramping is our work providing legal help to Domestic Violence survivors. Domestic Violence advocates in New York and Washington D.C. use LawHelp Interactive to help survivors access, complete and remotely file forms to win orders of protection and other vital court measures. Another key PBN program is the Risk Detector program, which takes aim at financial exploitation of seniors, including in housing and health care. PBN designed the program for use by social workers and professionals in aging to do legal health “check-ups” and referrals for the homebound, disabled and isolated elderly. 

Our programs provide key language access and plain language answers and support. Our core programs, including LawHelp, LawHelp Interactive and CitizenshipWorks, offer services in multiple languages. One site in our LawHelp network  saw the impact of having informative Spanish language legal resources, when, during a large traffic spike (from April 14th to April 17th), a Spanish-language resource on immigrants’ eligibility for government support counted for over 30 percent of its views, and Spanish-language resources counted for almost half of it’s views.

Beyond language access alone, many aren’t familiar or comfortable with tools that are needed to engage in and navigate legal and court processes online in the Covid-19 era, including photos and scanning apps, e-signature tools, video conferencing and remote hearings. We’re actively working to make things as simple as possible, with features like plain-language instructions and adding easy online e-signing capability. 

Providing legal resources to underserved immigrant communities is core to Pro Bono Net’s origin story and to its work today. A digital equity approach to this work has allowed our programs to extend their reach with immigrant communities. Two key PBN programs, CitizenshipWorks and Immi, provide immigrants with legal answers, access to legal help, and self-advocacy tools. These resources work to fill a large void—there is no right to counsel in immigration court, even for those facing deportation, and most who face deportation cannot afford a lawyer. Both efforts to provide self-advocacy resources, and expand free legal services available to immigrant communities, are vital to giving immigrants a fair shot. 

To make these programs successful, Pro Bono Net works with trusted partners, emphasizes visual representation in interfaces such as on Immi, and makes sure our users know their data is safe. Through programs like Citizenshipworks, PBN has partnered with organizations like Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles and the Brooklyn Public Library to help applicants across the country fill out and file immigrant applications. Community and advocacy partners help PBN extend remote legal services beyond those with broadband internet access. 

With our country at a moment of extreme legal need, remote legal support is as important as ever. PBN will keep working with our partners to help people effectively complete and file vital court forms, get answers to their legal questions and access legal services, and effectively self-advocate in court. 

 This is the third part of Pro Bono Net’s three-part blog series on the Digital Divide. If you missed part one or part two, click here