HIIL, the Justice Accelerator and its Annual Innovation Conference: thoughtful development in action

There is little than you can teach The Hague Institute for Innovation of Law (HiiL) about innovation, promotion and presentation. For that reason, the form of its annual innovation conference was unsurprising. Among the more conventional sessions, we were entertained, at times, by dance and video. In the breaks, you could also spend time in a meditative jellyfish-like bubble where a dreamlike voice invited you to contemplate solving your legal problem in another time. The spine of the day, however was very grounded. It consisted of 15 four minute pitches (plus two for questions) for its innovating justice award from organisations in its ‘justice accelerator’ programme. These came from nine countries and emphasised the breadth of HiiL’s global engagement in its post Rechtwijzer phase as it settles on being a worldwide support for innovation in justice – particularly, it seems, in Africa, the Middle East and Ukraine.

HiiL’s own description of its programme, which has now been running for five years, is as follows: ‘To promote justice innovation around the world, the Justice Accelerator issues Challenge competitions. The most promising innovations are published on our platform, www.innovatingjustice. After an online campaign, expert jury evaluation and local boostcamps, the most promising innovations are invited to the Annual Innovation Justice Forum … the finalists pitch their justice solution to a wide international audience … [and] can win up to €100,000 seed-funding … [as well as] professional acceleration support …’ The conference pitch by the projects is just the last point on a long road which has taken them through regional trainings and pre-conference boot or ‘boost’ camp in The Netherlands. Thus, although this is competitive in structure, it is also collaborative in substance. Participants clearly value both the resources available from HiiL and the contacts that they make both with each other.

Managing the entrants to the challenge requires quite a supporting infrastructure. First of all, the money has to be raised. Supporters include the Ford Foundation and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Then, entrants have to be encouraged and reduced. Over the five years, more than 1200 applicants have been reduced to shortlists of around 300 organisations based in 69 countries. This year’s challenge alone started off with 600 hopeful entrants. Of the final 15 presenting to the conference, ten came from Africa, three from Ukraine (which has, for some reason a strong tech presence in the justice field) and one each from The Netherlands and the United States.

The subject of the bids this year gives a pretty fair indication of the legal problems encountered in the developing countries from which they largely came. Several sought to address the issues of inadequate or corrupt public services. For example, Usalama in Kenya provided a single point from which you could get personal security with a shake of your phone. Msheria in the same country provided mobile app that provides legal assistance in confrontations with corrupt traffic enforcement officers. Road Rules is another mobile app that helps Zimbabweans to deal with traffic issues. South Africa’s Lady Liberty (which came second) provides a ‘mobile legal office’ that gives support to women suffering domestic violence. Ukraine’s Patent Bot offered a way of protecting trade marks quickly and easily and potentially in a range of different countries.

One of the most interesting projects (though more innovative than technological), and the deserved winner, was the Citizen Justice Network based at Wits University in Johannesburg. This supports paralegals by giving them journalism trains that gave them access, in particular, to local community radio. The project with probably most relevance for the UK came a New York NGO and offered – under the name Justfix.nyc – a guided approach to assembling a disrepair case against a landlord. Its founders had aspirations to start up in other cities like San Francisco and London, to which its founders had arranged a visit. It looked a potentially good way of leveraging scarce staff assets by allowing users to do much of the work in assembling the evidence behind their own cases.

This is its own description of how it works:

Step 1: Document Start by conducting a room-by-room inspection adding photo evidence. Your information is kept private and secure.

Step 2: Connect We provide access to housing rights experts and local community resources. Connect with an advocate in order to get advice and create an action plan.

Step 3: Take Action JustFix.nyc makes it simple and easy to take action! This includes filing complaints with the city, sending notices to your landlord, and understanding legal actions.

Step 4: Share Your Story If you need to reach out to legal services and tenant advocates, we make it easy to share your case. You can also print it out for Housing Court.

The judging panel scored the pitches under five criteria: impact, sustainability, scalability, uniqueness and the quality of the team behind the product. But all 15 shined at the conference  and got valuable publicity and cv kudos. The preceding boostcamp had certainly toned up the pitched: they were crisp, effective and everyone hit the time limit – always a bit of tense. At the end of the day, the presenters and HiiL staff should have slept well, satisfied with the good day’s work. Personally, I was knackered after a late flight back to Heathrow. Actually, they were probably pretty tired as well.

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