Technology, Access to Justice and Legal Empowerment in Developing Countries

Most talk of technology in the service of access to justice takes place in the context of countries with developed economies like the US, UK and Australia. Actually, as a matter of practice, much international talk is restricted further to anglophone countries where cross-communication is easier. But, there are increasing signs that there people and institutions in countries (anglophone or not) with less developed economies want to join in. And there are two major institutions – HiiL based in Europe – and the Open Society Justice Initiative (part of Georg Soros’ Open Society Foundation) in the United States – that are engaged both in assisting such initiatives and in giving publicity to their achievements.

Did you ever wonder what  HiiL did after its Rechtwijzer programme failed? Well, it refocused itself in a number of ways – including ‘a justice accelerator’ programme designed to foster innovation largely in countries with developing economies. It has recently announced the final short list of 17 for a programme which began at the end of October and culminates at a conference in February. The programme promises that winners ‘get invitations to the Justice Entrepreneurship School, seed money, workshops, and support from experienced mentors.’ They got 5000 Euros in hard cash plus the extras.

What is nice about this programme is that it is not simply a competition. The 17 finalists have progressed through a series of regional competitions supplemented by training held earlier this year in seen locations around the world. HiiL’s list gives an indication of the breadth of the entries and the range of countries from which they come. This is repeat programme – the last conference was held in 2017 – and its director, Ellen Tacoma, said, ‘This year is our largest ever cohort and we’re delighted to have participants from countries where HiiL hasn’t previously operated, including Benin, Bangladesh and India.’ The culmination of the process is a conference in The Hague to take place on 6 February. Your faithful correspondent will be there.

Innovation Description Country
Juridische Hulp Online (JHO) “Together with its partners, JHO helps private individuals, entrepreneurs, law firms and business service providers to make legal processes / procedures simple and transparent.” Netherlands
Baobab “By having lawyers create engaging tutorial style video-based tutorials (with attachments), we can empower people to resolve many of their own legal issues.” South Africa
Epoq Legal “Online (or offline) real-time legal document automation designed for everyday people. It includes help, guidance and examples throughout the process including multiple workflows.” South Africa
Axdraft “Absolutely free online platform of high quality automated legal documents for small and medium enterprises.” Ukraine
Vkursi Business integrity check in 1 click. Risk monitoring, hidden connections. Legal advisory and algorithm for dealing with detected threats. Ukraine
HeLawyer “HeLawyer” is a mobile app specializing in legal advice. It provides citizens, legal information and legal advice 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.” Benin
CrimeSync CrimeSync is an all-in-one digital crime records management application which serves to improve judicial service delivery through the whole justice chain. Sierra Leone
FarmWorkerzApp “FarmworkerzApp seeks to connect vetted farm-hands to potential farms for hiring anytime, anywhere to eliminate service/employment injustice and conflicts between workers and farm owners.” Nigeria
BTrack We have innovated a customized GPS tracker for use on motorcycles in such a way that removing them immobilizes the motorcycle.” Kenya
Viamo “Make employment rights available on demand in pre-recorded audio and text on a toll free mobile service under the short code 845 supported by MTN.” Rwanda
Wakili Mkononi Wakili Mkononi is a social enterprise that offers legal aid services and legal networking services on a digital platform. Kenya
Yunga Yunga is a local rescue digital network for neighbours, that allows them to communicate with each other in real time in case of attack Uganda
Tunga – Nkola App Tunga Innovations Ltd is an app that informs users about their employment rights. E.g leave days both annual and maternity, overtime rates and notice before resigning or being terminated. Uganda
Justice Bot JusticeBot is a chatbot that provides access to legal procedures information and services, to Ugandans in needs of legal service and justice. Uganda
Zzimba Games ZG is simplifying the justice ecosystem by simulating Ugandans experience through an entertaining card & board game, that mirrors their environment and subsequently empowers them. Uganda
Haqdarshak Tech platform which helps citizens discover, apply for and benefit for government welfare schemes India
Babadon Sangho To prepare maps use of an open source Android based mobile application, Geo-ODK, on smart phones and tablets by Deed Writers and Para surveyors Bangladesh

Meanwhile, the Open Society has teamed up with an international consultancy, the Engine Room, to document how technology can be – and is – used in its projects. The Engine Room produced a report in March 2018 that stressed the way in which data can assist advocacy and effectiveness:

Frontline case data can help to identify, in a compelling way, problems that need fixing based on local priorities. In 2012 and 2013, for example, the South African organization Black Sash used case data from local Community Advice Offices to discover that money was systematically—and inappropriately—deducated from people’s government benefit payments. Using data from more than 120 cases, from across three provinces, Black Sash ran a campaign that successfully ended the practice.

Collecting more data on legal aid and community-based justice can demonstrate the scale and impact of access to justice interventions. For example, the National Legal Aid Council in Moldova recently introduced a system that will collect data on paralegals’ activities nationwide, helping to build the case for sustainable, long-term support. It can also generate insights into complex issues by sharing data between organizations, as demonstrated by those organizations in the United Kingdom who collaborated to investigate common advice needs among homeless people.

Case data can demonstrate that community-based justice reduces public spending, by limiting the use of state resources. For example, a 2007–2010 analysis of 338 cases in Indonesia showed that paralegals in Indonesia often found alternative solutions that minimized the need to involve police, mediating between conflicting parties in 54 percent of cases reviewed. The Open Society Foundations are currently working with organizations in South Africa and Sierra Leone to conduct further research into the economic benefits to government, and to make the case for expanded justice services.

Well-designed technology systems for collecting case data can make legal empowerment work more efficiently, reducing costs and time spent on administration. By replacing manual processes with a new case management system, Legal Aid South Africa reduced the number of managers required to process cases from 64 to five. Indonesia’s Ministry of Law and Human Rights has said that moving to an online system has doubled the amount of money successfully reimbursed to independent legal aid organizations nationwide.

Collecting data effectively and regularly can also make organizations more responsive. Organizations we spoke to in Sierra Leone were starting to use case data both to identify paralegals’ training needs, and to shed light on questions such as the proportion of people who access local courts rather than the formal justice system.

The Open Society Foundations themselves have published reports on technology including one jointly with two Australian universities that looked in detail about how migrant workers might be assisted (and, on occasion, impeded) by technology. At its best, technology can assist greatly; ‘Over the past five years, digital technology initiatives have been developed to inform, empower, and connect migrant workers in new ways. These include consumer reporting platforms that pool data on migrants’ experiences with recruitment agencies, within supply chains, and more. Technology offers the promise that the worker’s voice is central to their migration and employment decisions, and allows them to share their experiences in order to reduce exploitation.’

Underlying this work are the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, just the sort of international declaration of principle that the UK historically does not like culturally – and which, indeed, in this instance might bite rather too hard. This commits nations to ‘peace, justice and strong institutions’.  As one of its specific targets under Goal 16 a commitment by all nations to

  • Promote the rule of law at the national and international levels and ensure equal access to justice for all

This has become an organising principle at least publicly acknowledged in countries like South Africa where it is quoted by, for example, the its Legal Aid Board in its last published annual report. That, like some of the technology being developed, might have a lesson for those of us in countries with more developed economies.

Picture from Pixabay