How technology is disrupting the courtroom

Kanan Dhru
Founder and Managing Director, Research Foundation for Governance in India, India
Michelle Arevalo-Carpenter
Chief Executive Officer and Co-founder, IMPAQTO
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Technology is challenging the old ways of doing things, while governments are struggling to keep up with the pace of change. In particular, justice systems, which are known for being sluggish and bureaucratic, will need to adapt to keep their legitimacy in the eyes of today’s connected citizens who are empowered by the wealth of online information at their fingertips.

However, the justice sector is ripe for disruption and certain innovations are bringing it up to speed. There have already been investigations into whether smartphone devices and social media sites can help monitor what happens in courts, record complaints and collect evidence. The Smartphone App for Courtroom Justice developed by Open Trial, for example, allows citizens to check if their trial matches up to the criteria of a fair trial, and even allows for transparency by making the report available online for public scrutiny.

But technology can only be part of the way forward. Poor case management, partisan interests and outright apathy are some of the reasons why justice systems across the world crumble before cases are brought to court. The consequence is that many of the world’s most vulnerable people lose out and citizens grow less patient with justice administration.

Both the developing and developed worlds are coming up with innovations to counter these challenges, including putting information and communications technology into the courtroom. In India, a government project aims to connect the judiciary, police stations and prisoners through video-conferencing. The project not only aims to decrease the hassle of the court staff, the litigants and the lawyers by saving on costs and time, but it will also increase efficiency of the judges. In the UK, police and judges have started using digital case files, transferring the case information electronically instead of physically, as is the case in many countries. Such initiatives are introducing efficiency and transparency into the legal process, fundamentally altering the way we see them.

Technological advances are also allowing justice systems to make their services, legal aid and expert lawyer’s advice more widely available. One example comes from the Chicago-Kent College of Law in the United States, which incubated the A2J Author, a software programme that makes it easier for self-represented litigants to assemble legal documents for straightforward cases. Not only do initiatives like this empower non-lawyers to understand the system better and claim their rights in a more informed fashion, it also removes some of the barriers previously faced by marginalized members of society, such as lawyer fees, processes written in legalese and physical access to courts.

Solving the problem of access proved to be ground-breaking. In Sierra Leone, a non-tech innovation that relies on paralegals (non-lawyers who are equipped with knowledge of criminal law and procedure and trained in practical skills) and community-based mediation, has turned into a worldwide movement, sharing best practices and tools through Namati, a Web-based network. Dispute-resolution has also grown in the online world, with e-courts such as making justice-related transactions scalable and easily accessible. For instance, Cybersettle has helped municipalities save time and resources handling claims related to property damage or bodily injury by allowing parties to confidentially match offers and demands to effectively negotiate the settlement of disputes online.

In countries such as Iceland, Finland and Argentina, technology is redefining how citizens interact with the laws that govern them. A Finnish website called Participedia is involving citizens and lawyers in crowd-sourcing law projects; it could save the justice sector from potential constitutional challenges, as well as the headache of redrafting and amending.

The idea is not without its detractors – the process of writing the first crowd-sourced constitution in Iceland has brought forward the need to further refine the drafting of collaborative law. Yet, this exercise in citizen consultation is taking bold steps forward in engaging people in a more connected way. There is certainly demand for it: Buenos Aires’ Partido de la Red (Net Party) offers citizens a chance to experience direct democracy through a voting app. The party’s elected representative is required to vote in accordance with what the majority of the app users want. The raised stakes force the representative and the electorate to engage in constant dialogue, transparency and education around law-making.

Many in the justice sector fear that technological innovations could trivialize the system by treating people as users, or empowering the uninformed many. This is understandable; justice and the rule of law ought not to be compromised by tech fads. Disrupting complex justice systems is risky because of what is at stake.

Yet, many judicial failures have little to do with legal principles. Instead, it is inefficiency, unequal access and a lack of legitimacy that test society’s patience. The best innovations will be fair and open; they will reinforce rule-of-law principles and answer the growing demand for transparency, information, speed and participation.

Technology is but a tool to respond to the pressures and entitlements of information-empowered citizens. The best innovations to come out of the justice sector will be those that allow us to creatively manage perennial questions in the light of today’s complexities: legitimacy, fairness, equality, openness. The transformation of our consciousness around justice will require in response a transformation of justice systems for better access, efficiency and participation.

Read more blogs on technology.

Authors: Kanan Dhru (@dhrukanan) is Founder and Managing Director of the Research Foundation for Governance in India and a Member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on India. Michelle Arevalo-Carpenter (@michelleac1) is General Manager of TECHO Ecuador and a Member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Rule of the Law.

Image: A camera is seen in a courtroom before the start of a trial at a Paris court February 4, 2014. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

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