HIIL: from Palace to Laptop – the 2021 Innovating Justice Forum

The Hague Institute for Innovation of Law (HIiL) occupies a unique position in the access to justice field. It was once best known for its online dispute resolution package, the Rechtwijzer, which it developed with the Dutch Legal Aid Board and vigorously promoted to similar legal aid providers in developed countries. It then detached itself from its product, which it passed to Dutch start up Justice42, and reoriented itself as a world-leading development organisation with the ambitious aim of empowering ‘150 million people to prevent and resolve their most pressing justice problems by 2030’. HiiL has just completed its annual conference, held – of course, given the times – by video. You can read and watch its own account of the three day event.

HiiL traditionally holds its annual conference in the grand and redolent surroundings of the Peace Palace in The Hague. This was designed by the industrialist-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie; opened on the eve of the First World War; and has been the home of various multi-national endeavours – currently providing a base for the International Court of Justice. The venue was not, however, entirely successful. The Peace Palace is protected by strict security and is build in the Hogwarts, minor English public school style  with a touch of European grandeur. This is more than a little confusing when HiiL wants to convey its commitment to the modern and the innovational. With more symbolism than may have been immediately apparent, HiiL has even, in the past, set up futuristic pods that isolated participants from their imposing surroundings. Perhaps in consequence, this conference was improved by shift to video – particularly as overseas contributors, many of them from countries in Africa, were able to contribute from their home base.

A good part of the first day was taken up by presentations from participants in HiiL’s justice accelerator programme. This provides, within a competitive framework, a four month long programme of training, funding and exposure to start ups seeking to work on justice and the associated UN ‘sustainable development goal’, SDG 16. HiiL  has regional hubs to assist in this process based in East Africa, Southern Africa, Middle East and North Africa and the Ukraine. There was an interesting conversation about how the one in Uganda had operated to galvanise local developments. Some 20 organisations that had made their way through regional finals presented to the conference. The winner was the Ukrainian Lawyerd, ‘a fully automated claims platform that helps protect IP rights on the internet’. Second was Luma Law from Zimbabwe, a chatbot in the course of design intended to use AI to answer legal queries. Third place went to Legal4ASM providing specific information for miners in Zimbabwe.

The diversity of the winners mirrored the variety of the other participants. And pointed perhaps to one of the differences in concepts of access to justice in developed and developing countries. HiiL’s selection of start ups really contained three separate groups: some would be considered more FinTech than LawTech in other contexts and some were more commercially orientated like the winner than concerned with the legal problems specifically of the poor. At this stage, such a broad church probably does not matter that much and having wide criteria for entry clearly assists in building momentum and coverage.

HiiL’s background as a research organisation is an important part of the mix. It backs up its involvement in a start up competition with research and strategy. It used the conference to launch its latest report on trends, ‘Delivering Justice Rigorously’. This is part of a structure of work that includes a ‘justice dashboard’ which reports on HiiL’s empirical measuring of access to justice in various countries. HiiL has identified what it calls ‘gamechangers’ ie ‘justice innovations that provide scalable and sustainable opportunities (products, services and models) to enact the (local) solutions most responsive to people’s justice needs.’ These reveal HiiL’s systemic approach and are:

  1. community justice services;
  2. user-friendly contracts and other documents;
  3. one stop dispute resolution platforms;
  4. problem solving courts for criminal cases;
  5. claiming services to help people access vital public services;
  6. Prevention programmes or services that ensure safety and security through technology; and
  7. people-centred online information/advice with follow up services.

These make an interesting comparison with a list largely derived from developed countries where the focus is less on state systems. My recent attempt included back office automation and:

  1. more reliance on self empowerment;
  2. improvement of online assistance;
  3. The integration of digital and analogue ‘blended’ service;
  4. Leadership and co-ordination;
  5. The growth of ‘digital outreach’;
  6. The importance of user-centred design, data and evaluation;
  7. Serendipitous developments and services meeting specialist need.

Allowing for a difference in orientation and vocabulary, there is, in fact, a good degree of overlap.

The Hague can be bitingly cold at this time of year. And, indeed, the British media was full of photos of people skating on the frozen canals of Amsterdam this year. So, there was a natural comfort in watching this conference from a centrally heated house in London. But, this was both a successful conference with something to say about global access to justice and a successful video conference with something to show about the advantages of the medium.

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