Using Technology to Accelerate Justice
February 6, 2019 I Jim Karani
Hundreds of tech innovators, entrepreneurs, lawyers and judges from around the globe are gathered at the Peace Palace, The Hague Netherlands, for the 9th Annual Innovating Justice Forum organized by the HiiL (Hague Institute for Innovation of Law).
The 2-day forum that concluded today centered its discussions on finding ways to make justice inclusive and user-friendly. HiiL has set an ambitious goal of ensuring that 150 million people are equipped to prevent or resolve their justice problems by the year 2030. This goal is in line with SDG16.3-acceleration in the provision of justice to people.
The goal remains ambitious as justice is not easy to access or understand to most Kenyans. The law is perceived by many as too technical, burdened by complex procedures, lassoed with legalese and guarded by legal tradition. As the Legal Affairs Manager for WildlifeDirect, I have visited all courts in Kenya and I have seen accused persons bewildered and overwhelmed by court proceedings. The only bit of technology in use is the delivery of court returns, court diary tracking, video conferencing and the low hanging fruit of using e- payments in settling of dues and fines at court stations. It is not unusual for witnesses to make the journey to court only to find pinned notices at courtrooms that hearing of a case won’t proceed. The disruptive nature of uncommunicated adjournments, especially to witnesses, is the main cause of witness fatigue. Everything else is by hand on paper. All court proceedings, rulings and judgments are handwritten – often to catastrophic ends. Judicial officers turn into composition writers putting everything on record. It is not unusual for cases to start afresh just for the reason that court proceedings couldn’t be read due to bad handwriting. Most cases stall as accused persons await to be given charge sheets and witness statements in order to prepare their defense. Despite electronic evidence (photo and video) being admissible, we still see law enforcement bringing in physical evidence as opposed to admissible photos to court. There is still no way to track repeat offenders and previously convicted persons making following up recidivism a difficulty. It’s not unusual for court files to go missing causing major miscarriage of justice. Those that appear in court without legal representation clearly are the most vulnerable and are at the mercy of law enforcement and the ebbs of the legal system.
Recent declarations in speeches by the Chief Justice and Cabinet Secretary in charge of Information have all reiterated the opportunity that technology will offer access to justice. So what does a technology driven – access to justice approach look like in Kenya?
WildlifeDirect’s Eyes in the Courtroom project is addressing the issue acceleration of justice through an innovative application system. We have developed iCourtroom Wildlife Crime System, which monitors all wildlife crime cases in Kenya. Last year, iCourtroom app was among the Kenyan finalists at the 2018 HiiL Justice Accelerator competition. This innovation was started by WildlifeDirect and funded by the Elephant Crisis Fund through Save The Elephants.
While visiting all 121 courts in Kenya, my team collected over 1300 wildlife crime cases and analysis of this colossal amount of data needed the use of technology. We were interested in finding out how well the law enforcement agencies were enforcing the law by looking into outcomes of court cases all over Kenya. We had to track offences, their progress in court, their adjudication and sentencing outcome. We could not find this information anywhere online or on a digital database. WildlifeDirect remains the only organization that publicly avails a comprehensive analysis of Kenya’s law enforcement response to wildlife crime.
By applying a human centered design, we developed iCourtroom Wildlife Crime database to collect, store, manage, analyze and report on wildlife crime cases. Its main features is the digital uploads of all contents of the court file to ensure integrity of the file. The system mirrors the sexual offenders’ database pioneered in the USA and tracks all repeat offenders and convicted persons in wildlife crime cases. The second version, currently under development, will allow access to reference materials, texts and laws to prosecutors, judges and magistrates. It will allow for subscription based access to accused and interested persons to important public documents like charge sheets, witness statements, court hearings dates and day to day court proceedings.
Its benefit is easy to see. Prosecutors can access wildlife law reference materials with ease and understand how to diligently prosecute. Judicial officers have access to conviction data giving them the discretion to enhance penalties against repeat offenders. The public will have real time information to hold enforcement agencies to account while having access to crucial information about their cases. Cases can be heard faster, day to day court proceedings can be seamlessly communicated, less paper will be used (Greening the Judiciary) satisfying the most basic tenets of access to justice – fair, cheap and expedient justice.
Technology is supposed to automate rigid and determined processes and nothing is as rigid as the criminal justice process. From arrest to sentencing the criminal trial steps can be predicted and easily anticipated by those interested in cases, both accused persons, lawyers and law enforcement. This system shows that it is possible to create a digital tool that enhances access to justice. With a 85% smart phone penetration in Kenya and 70% of Kenyans classified as internet users there is no reason why access to justice is not at a fingers tap.
The writer is a Legal Affairs Manager at WildlifeDirect. WildlifeDirect is a conservation organization focused on changing hearts, minds and laws to ensure critical species endure forever.