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Laurence H. Tribe, Senior Counselor for Access to Justice, Speaks at the NTIA Announcement of Broadband Grant Recipients


Washington, DC
United States

As prepared for delivery.

Good morning.

I would like to thank the National Telecommunications and Information Administration – the NTIA – and, in particular, the Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information Larry Strickling, as well as the good people at the Department of Commerce for inviting me to participate in this very exciting announcement.  I am pleased to be joining the NTIA in congratulating both North Carolina Central University and The Puget Sound Center Foundation for Teaching, Learning, and Technology for developing their innovative and forward-thinking projects – projects that promote our shared goal of providing meaningful access to justice to under-served populations in North Carolina and Washington.  And I am especially pleased to join Larry in announcing the good news that these projects will be funded by the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, known (in this city of acronyms) as BTOP.

The Access to Justice Initiative that I have led since its creation in March of this year has been tasked by the President and the Attorney General with the mission of enhancing access to justice.  We define access to justice not in a narrow or technical sense that focuses simply on lawyers and courts, but in a broad sense that looks at how well people can achieve fair outcomes in matters that are of major importance to the way they live – issues as diverse as mortgage foreclosure, child custody and indigent defense.  A critical component of our efforts is a dedication to improving our country’s badly broken system of civil legal service delivery.

It wasn’t long after I was appointed as Senior Counselor for Access to Justice that I realized how central a role technology would have to play in any effort to close the justice gap faced by poor and working class people – including those who reside in rural communities and on Indian reservations.  Even in the earliest days of the new Initaitive, as I was still struggling to master the basics of Government 101, it became clear that the NTIA would be a critical ally in promoting access to justice through technology, and that BTOP would be an essential tool in that endeavor.

I came to these realizations as I digested the alarming truths about our criminal and civil justice systems: Few parts of government are less transparent than the legal system, and a significant majority of those who encounter that labyrinthine system cannot afford the helping hand of a lawyer, even for such life-altering events as the loss of a home, the loss of custody of a child, or the loss of their privilege to reside in the United States.  That’s where the NTIA and BTOP come in: Given the enormous need for legal assistance among underserved populations, justice-focused broadband projects can mean that justice can reach people through technology in a way that allows them to truly “access” the system in a hands-on way, not just as an aspiration but by giving them online, real-time access to the law, legal information, the courts and other appropriate problem-solving institutions.  We believe that making the justice system more accessible for low-income and otherwise vulnerable populations is, quite simply, essential:

We must develop the necessary infrastructure – including both broadband access and strategically-placed computer terminals – so that under-served populations can acquire access to available web-based legal assistance and basic government services.

We must encourage electronic form assembly and electronic filing systems, so that people seeking government benefits and prospective pro se litigants – litigants without legal representation – can get help in diagnosing their legal problems and can then take the actions they need to help solve their problems.

We must promote technology literacy training to educate people about the available uses of the Internet in securing resources and services that are available yet often hard to obtain for the most vulnerable and remote populations.

We should study the utilization of videoconferencing technology throughout the justice system, including remote conferencing capability for pro bono lawyers and law school clinics and their geographically dispersed clients.

We must seek the cooperation and input of key stakeholders throughout the community, including the judiciary, legal aid providers, law schools and other educational institutions, law enforcement, tribal courts, librarians, and health care providers.

These are among the goals of my Initiative, and they are goals that have been embraced by the NTIA in its decision to fund the two projects that are being recognized today. 

The Puget Sound Center Foundation for Teaching, Learning, and Technology and the Communities Connect Network are committed to combating the digital divide – one that finds 85 percent of low-income Washington households without broadband, and 63 percent with no Internet connection at all.  This project will establish and support an interconnected system of public computing centers throughout the state in public libraries, community centers, non-profit organizations, courthouses, and low-income housing complexes.  The computing centers will be connected to emerging networks of social services organizations, legal aid offices, courts, and government services, and the Communities Connect Network includes a significant training component so that vulnerable populations can develop their computing skills as they gain greater access to services and resources to which they are entitled but from which they have often been excluded.

North Carolina Central University School of Law’s Virtual Justice Broadband Project is similarly ambitious in its goals and well-suited to achieve them. According to the project proposal, 80 percent of North Carolina’s counties are rural and under-served by the broadband infrastructure, and over 240,000 households have no broadband service whatsoever.  NCCU, North Carolina’s only historically black university with a law school, will use broadband to provide remote learning opportunities to low and medium income students at other historically black colleges and universities, offer pro bono legal resources to under-served areas through videoconferencing technology, and provide distance learning opportunities with respect to basic legal concepts and pro bono legal education for low-income and rural populations, often through partnerships with educational and other anchor institutions throughout the state.

These two projects represent some of the very best in thinking about how we can use technology and innovation to connect resources and services to those for whom societal marginalization and physical remoteness have long prevented meaningful access.  If they prove to be successful, they will provide models for similar efforts throughout the country, helping to improve access to justice for America’s less advantaged people everywhere.  NTIA’s support of access to justice represents forward-thinking solutions to real problems of the kind that our citizens can and should expect from their government.  It’s an honor for me to be here with NTIA and to recognize NCCU and The Puget Sound Center Foundation for Teaching, Learning, and Technology, and I look forward to our ongoing collaboration as you implement these exciting programs that promise to improve the lives of those people whom government and our legal systems should strive especially hard to serve.

Thank you.

Access to Justice
Updated April 26, 2016