Digital innovations in education, healthcare and business have transformed our way of working and living – something which has been accelerated because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, technology has a big impact on the practice of law. The emergence of African socio-legal start-ups and online platforms offering legal education and support is promising, as they can facilitate access to justice.
To attain universal access to justice, the EU-AU digital partnership should endorse these fresh techniques and technologies that facilitate Africa’s digital transformation strategy. Its objective of increasing investments, backing innovations, and promoting digital rights aligns with this goal.
Africa’s Digital Ecosystem and the Potential of Socio-Legal Innovations for E-Justice
Africa’s digital ecosystem is rapidly evolving, with digital technologies being adopted in various local contexts to enable services such as digital payments, precision farming, and predictive health. This is reflected in the increasing penetration of mobile internet, particularly among young people.
The rise of fintech has led to the development of mobile money platforms like M-Pesa, Momo, Orange, and Airtel money, which enable financial transactions within local communities. With more than 500 African companies providing technology-based innovations in financial services, Africa accounts for 70% of the world’s $1 trillion mobile money value.
The potential to extend the use of digital technology to other critical sectors such as justice is enormous and could drive state service delivery. This vision is shared at the continental level, and the African Union (AU) has articulated its ambitions and vision in the Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa 2020-2030. The strategy aims to establish a vibrant sector approach to digitalization by creating the necessary building blocks for e-governance, enhancing inclusive digital skills and human capacity in key sectors such as the judiciary, and bridging the digital infrastructure gap to enhance accessibility in remote regions. Nonetheless, the AU is yet to translate these aspirations into reality.
Digital development in the justice sector has the potential to address issues related to accessibility, legitimacy, and efficiency. With over 53% of Africans lacking confidence in the judicial process in their countries, complexities within the legal system lead to case backlogs and exacerbate corruption tendencies. The limited number of lawyers also contributes to the high cost of litigation, making access to justice difficult for the poor. One of the challenges to a digital transition is the digital gender divide, as only 24% of women in Africa have access to the internet. Women in rural areas face particular challenges in accessing legal assistance due to socio-cultural factors that limit their access to land, property, and economic opportunities.
However, socio-legal innovations offer a promising solution to these challenges. Various digital solutions, including virtual courts and electronic information systems, have been introduced to improve court accessibility, expedite court processes, and provide easy, affordable, and efficient access to legal services for those with internet access.
Barefootlaw Uganda is a successful example of an organization using such socio-legal innovations. By using social media, virtual counsel, interactive voice responses (IVR), SMS, and a call centre for those with limited internet access, Barefootlaw empowers citizens with free legal information to uphold and defend their rights.
Afriwise is another example of a digital platform in the legal sector that connects top law firms across Africa. Their online legal web portal translates legal texts into practical legal guidance in a uniform and comparable manner. Afriwise offers subscribers 24/7 access to automatic legal text alerts regarding changes in the law and to the top in-country legal experts at a low cost.
HeLawyer, a mobile application developed by a group of volunteer lawyers in the Republic of Benin, provides free legal advice and support to citizens to gain legal knowledge and use it to defend their rights and property.
All of these socio-legal innovations are adapted to the local context and have the potential to accelerate the transition to e-justice in Africa.
Integrating Digitalisation into Justice Systems: Challenges and Opportunities for the European Union in Africa
The European Union (EU) aims to integrate digitalisation into its multi-annual indicative programmes (MIPs) for partner countries, with a focus on digital skills and e-services. The joint Africa-Europe Digital Economy strategy guides this ambition for Africa. While the strategy mentions the intention to create funding mechanisms to pilot e-services, including in the court system, it does not provide clear transition pathways to achieve the goal of digital justice.
The EU has a long-standing partnership with the African Union (AU) to promote justice and the rule of law, which contributes to good governance, human rights, gender equality, security, and sustainable development in partner countries. The European Consensus on Development supports efficient, transparent, and accountable justice systems and access to justice for all. The EU has been committed to strengthening its rule of law approaches in partner countries through the European Development Fund.
Although the EU has made some positive contributions to justice sector reforms through the European Development Fund (EDF), more needs to be done to ensure that citizens can easily access justice institutions to resolve their legal needs efficiently.
The traditional analog form of justice has not been able to meet the needs of people in sub-Saharan African countries. More than 50% of citizens still struggle to resolve their legal needs, largely due to the bureaucratic nature of the court process, causing delays and perpetuating corruption, which renders legal institutions inaccessible to those in need.
The formal justice system has been significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic as they were not equipped to function efficiently during a lockdown. However, this has created an opportunity for digitalisation. Tanzania, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa and Nigeria, among other African Union (AU) member states, used this opportunity to test the Electronic Court Case Management Information System (ECCMIS), which introduced e-filing of court documents, e-payment of legal fees and e-processing of cases to enhance the efficiency of the justice process.
The EU-funded legal empowerment project in Kenya, PLEAD programme implemented by UNODC, has shown flexibility in adapting to online methods during full lockdown by providing courts with digital tools like laptops, scanners, printers, and video conferencing devices.
The LEWUTI project in Uganda, implemented by Barefootlaw and Avocats Sans Frontières with the support of the Wehubit fund, is another initiative that has made a significant impact by providing online legal assistance and support to victims of domestic violence during the lockdown. The project aimed to equip women, particularly those in remote communities, with digital means.
While socio-legal innovations and digital court infrastructures have the potential to revolutionize the justice sector, certain challenges must be addressed, such as the digital divide, access to proper computers, inadequate training, and poor internet connectivity in remote regions. This is to ensure that technology does not exacerbate the issues it seeks to address. There is also a disconnect between the work of these virtual court systems and external socio-legal innovations that could be addressed through resource allocation.
The integration of socio-legal start-ups with new digital court infrastructures could yield immediate impact and build alliances with innovators. The EU could support investments and scaling of early-stage start-ups driving justice sector transformations, such as the innovating justice fund and the AU digital and innovation fellowship.
The justice sector provides an opportunity for the EU to align its digital priorities with its justice and rule of law priorities in Africa, where it is one of the biggest donors. To achieve digital ambitions, progress must be made in bridging the digital gender divide, investing in digital infrastructure in poorly connected areas, and setting the right legal and regulatory framework, along with the willingness of partner countries to embrace the digital transition.
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