More ways in which technology can be used to promote access to justice

Frank Richardson, OpenTrial

In a recent post, Roger Smith suggested ten ways in which technology can expand access to justice. But, from the point of view of an ethical enterprise that seeks to advance justice by harnessing modern technology, a further dimension can be added by looking at our experience in poorer countries.

OpenTrial seeks to advance the 2016 UN Doha Declaration that calls for ‘a people-centred approach that provides access to justice for everyone and builds effective and accountable institutions at all levels.’ This contribution to debate is largely taken from information previously published on the OpenTrial website that records the key elements of our work.

Our approach has been influenced by the knowledge that there has been massive ongoing investment (in total, billions of dollars) in old fashioned, top-down rule of law building. Its focus has included training sessions for judges, prosecutors and defence lawyers, setting up courts, putting modern police equipment in place and the like. This effort has been led by the prominent players in the field – such as the World Bank, the IMF, the regional banks and USAID. But, it has seldom enhanced the rule of law or improved the lot of the poor.

Today, however, with the advent of optical fibre cabling, mobile phone technology, broadband, and computer and internet literacy, technology now has a vital role to play in making inadequate legal systems far more accessible, timely, transparent, accountable and effective. Likewise, the role of the media, through facilitating dialogue, changing expectations and norms, and making public the abuses of those in power, can go a long way to help advance the rule of law.

Technology: eight uses

We recommend an eight-pronged use of ICT and conventional media to reinforce and complement each other in providing legal information and enhancing law enforcement transparency and accountability:

1. Due process smartphone apps

Smartphone apps can help ensure correct crime investigation, pre-trial treatment and court trials. The apps inform, provide checklists and have a reporting facility. Results are sent for analysis and reports are produced to reveal patterns of incorrect procedure, mistreatment and perversions of justice. These apps improve general awareness of correct criminal procedures and inform the public of flaws, so that maximum and focused pressure can be applied to tackle legal system dysfunction in countries around the world.

The apps contain, in local and official languages, where they differ:

a. Applicable international conventions as well as a country’s legislation, constitutional articles, and police protocols that set out fair trial and pre-trial (due process) rights and correct police procedures,

b. Checklists (couched in simple, non-legalistic language) for the user to assess whether

correct criteria have been complied with, and

c. A public violation-reporting facility to reveal patterns of corruption, abuse, etc. Reports can be made anonymously. The press can be encouraged to publicise regularly compiled reports.

The apps will help deter unlawful detention, torture, demands for bribes and other in-custody abuse.

As an example, we have recently launched a pilot, smartphone ‘Rights of the Accused’ app in Malawi. Our aim is to produce Rights of the Accused reporting apps for every less developed country. This will transform not just legal systems, but the lives of billions.

2. Computer games

Electronic/video games help people in the developing world, even the illiterate, counter endemic crime and abuse by furthering their knowledge of their rights and helping devise strategies to counter such abuse. At the other end of the scale, they can also be used to educate judges, police, prosecutors and lawyers about such rights.

3. Websites and social media

Specially designed social network websites, economical with legalese, which provide and update legal information for the layperson and the professional, offer online courses about basic rights, inform about and facilitate ways to engage, permit the reporting of violations that reveal patterns of corruption, abuse, etc., and which encourage discussions about due process issues.

4. Information, Education and Communication (IEC) materials

Posters, leaflets, booklets, articles for the press, etc., can promote a simplified version of relevant due process laws.

5. Focus-group discussions

These can be conducted in communities – in meeting rooms and even market places – with the aim of raising awareness about correct due process and to obtain feedback on the efficiency and deficiencies of the justice system and how to best get the message across . Discussions with and the lobbying of the government, judiciary, law society, academia, NGOs, lawyers, etc. are also vital to improve legal systems.

6.  Radio, TV and street dramas, and interactive/reality programmes can be part of an integrated public service announcement (PSA) awareness campaign which will cover due process and other legal issues in local language using lay terms.

7. Music albums

Music is an excellent way of reaching a wider audience and of informing people about access to justice and the need for fair law enforcement.

8. Lexposé

A database, accessible online, which profiles justice system agencies (e.g. the judiciary, police and prosecution service) and those who staff them. The publicly available information will  include codes of conduct, salaries, employment procedures, job descriptions,  education/training and career development, budgets, expenditure, performance indicators,  independent international reports, capacity building undertaken and planned, etc.

These are all elements of what is essentially a technology-based approach. Some of our work can be accommodated within Roger’s categories if they were expanded a bit. For example, much of what we do relates to the possible extension of ‘just in time’ legal education. Our work on apps, for instance, that help users through an often contorted (if not corrupt and even violent) criminal process, merits a portrayal beyond a simple acknowledgement that websites can be interactive. Technology offers the prospect of guiding and supporting users through difficult transactions with legal systems in real time, and in exciting new ways that can promote both immediate assistance and long-term monitoring and feedback on the performance both of laws and those enforcing them.

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