Strengthening the EU-AU digital agenda: The potential of e-justice

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.

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      The EU-AU digital partnership, which aims to scale up investments, support innovations and promote digital rights in line with Africa’s digital transformation strategy, should support these new approaches and technologies to achieve universal access to justice.

      Africa’s emerging digital ecosystem

      Africa is increasingly adopting digital technologies in specific local contexts, which facilitate services such as digital payments, precision farming and predictive health. This is reflected in the surge in mobile internet penetration, especially among young people.

      The emergence of fintech has brought the continent mobile money platforms such as M-Pesa, Momo, Orange and Airtel money, which facilitate financial transactions within local communities. Africa accounts for 70% of the world’s $1 trillion mobile money value, and more than 500 African companies provide technology-enabled innovation in financial services.

      There is an opportunity to expand the use of digital technology to other key sectors – such as justice – to propel state service delivery. This vision is shared at the continental level. The AU has articulated its ambitions and vision in the Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa 2020-2030. This strategy aims to bring about a vibrant sector approach to digitalisation by creating the essential building blocks for e-governance, building inclusive digital skills and human capacity in key sectors – including the judiciary – and closing the digital infrastructural gap to improve accessibility in remote areas. However, the AU is yet to turn these ambitions into reality.

      The justice sector can benefit from digital development to tackle challenges around access, legitimacy and efficiency. Over 53% of Africans don’t have confidence in the judicial process in their countries. This is attributed to the complexities within the legal system, which cause case backlogs and exacerbate corruption tendencies. The limited number of lawyers has also resulted in a high cost of litigation, making access to justice difficult for the poor.

      Another challenge towards a digital transition is the digital gender divide, as only 24% of women have access to the internet in Africa. Yet, especially women in rural communities require legal assistance because of socio-cultural factors which limit access to land, property and economic opportunities.

      Socio-legal innovations on the continent promise to revolutionise the sector and tackle these challenges. Several digital solutions – such as virtual courts and electronic information systems – have been mobilised to enhance court accessibility, speed up the court process and enable access to legal service in an easy, cheap and efficient way for those who have access to the internet.

      An example of organisation successfully using such socio-legal innovations is Barefootlaw Uganda. Barefootlaw uses social media and digital tools such as a virtual counsel and interactive voice responses (IVR), as well as SMS and a call centre for those with poor internet reach, to empower citizens with free legal information to uphold and defend their rights.

      Similarly, there is Afriwise, an online legal web portal that connects top law firms across the continent to translate legal texts into practical legal guidance, in a uniform and comparable manner. Through their 24/7 service at a low cost, they offer subscribers access to automatic legal text alerts to changes in the law and to the top in-country legal experts.

      Another example is HeLawyer in the Republic of Benin, which is a mobile application developed by a group of volunteer lawyers providing free legal advice and support to citizens to gain legal knowledge and use it to defend their rights and property.

      All of these innovations are adapted to the local context and can accelerate a transition to e-justice.

      Revising the EU’s rule of law approach?

      The EU wants to mainstream digitalisation – with a focus on digital skills and e-services – in its multi-annual indicative programmes (MIPs), which outline the way the EU intends to spend its resources for external action for the next seven years (2021-2027) in partner countries. When it comes to Africa, this ambition is guided by the joint Africa-Europe Digital Economy strategy. While the strategy mentions the intention to create funding mechanism(s) for piloting e-services, including in the court system, it does not show transition pathways to achieve the goal of digital justice.

      The EU has a long-standing partnership with the AU on promoting justice and the rule of law, which is a way for the EU to promote good governance, respect for human rights, gender equality, security and sustainable development in partner countries. This is further articulated in the European Consensus on Development, which aims to promote and foster efficient, transparent and accountable justice systems and access to justice for all. The EU has been keen on strengthening its rule of law approaches in partner countries through the European Development Fund (see Box 1).

      Box 1: The EU’s support for rule of law, justice and security has evolved over the years

      Over the years, EU support to rule of law, justice and security sector interventions in Africa has evolved throughout different editions of the European Development Fund (EDF), the EU’s former budget for development cooperation with African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. For instance, the ninth EDF emphasised institutional reforms to strengthen the judiciary, improve judicial efficiency, reinforce fair trial rights, improve prison management and conditions, and promote alternative sentencing provisions.

      The tenth EDF focused more on promoting access to justice through support to legal aid systems, decentralising legal service, involvement of civil society, monitoring of the justice system, and supporting gender equality and minority rights, while the eleventh EDF prioritised strengthening sector systems by solidifying the impact of past interventions, building transparency and improving domestic accountability mechanisms to build public trust in the institution of justice.

      Through the EDF, the EU has made some positive contributions to justice sector reforms and reinforced the institutional frameworks necessary for effective justice delivery. However, more needs to be done to ensure that citizens can easily access the justice institutions to resolve their legal needs in a timely and efficient manner.

      The analog form of justice has not been able to adequately serve the needs of the people. Over 50% of citizens in sub-Saharan African countries still experience hardship in resolving their legal needs. This is attributed to the bureaucratic nature of the court process, which causes delays, and perpetuates corruption tendencies, which makes legal institutions inaccessible to those in need.

      The formal justice systems have been heavily affected by COVID-19 because they were not equipped to work effectively during a lockdown. Judiciaries were forced to either close entirely or scale down operations. However, this opened windows for digitalisation. For instance, AU member states such as Tanzania, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa and Nigeria used the opportunity to test the Electronic Court Case Management Information System (ECCMIS) which introduced the e-filing of court documents, e-payment of legal fees and e-processing of cases to improve the efficiency of the justice process.

      The PLEAD programme, an EU-funded legal empowerment project in Kenya implemented by UNODC, showed flexibility in adapting to online methods during full lockdown, by equipping the courts with digital tools such as laptops, scanners, printers and video conferencing devices.

      Another initiative, the LEWUTI project in Uganda, which is implemented by Barefootlaw and Avocats Sans Frontières with the support of the Wehubit fund, registered an enormous impact in providing online legal assistance and support to victims of domestic violence during the lockdown. The project was specifically created to equip women, especially those in remote communities, with digital means.

      However, the potential of these innovations can only be fully realised if certain challenges are addressed, such as the high digital divide, access to proper computers, inadequate training and poor internet connectivity in remote regions of the continent. This is to ensure that technology does not exacerbate the problems it set out to address. There also seems to be a disconnect between the work of these virtual court systems and the external socio-legal innovations. This could be a priority for the EU and partner countries in terms of resource allocation.

      For instance, immediate impact could be achieved by building synergies through the integration of social-legal start-ups with new digital court infrastructures – to act as court extension support systems. This would strengthen alliances with innovators, which are necessary to provide valuable evidence-based research, enforce accountability and bridge the digital information gap among citizens.

      The EU could also direct its support towards investments and scaling of early-stage start-ups that are driving these justice sector transformations. For instance, it could get on board with the newly announced innovating justice fund, which already receives support from the Dutch government. This fund provides funding and technical assistance to early-stage start-ups to deliver innovative justice solutions to emerging markets and could be a building block toward enhancing the e-justice transition.

      In a similar vein, the EU could support the AU digital and innovation fellowship, which is offered to ten young African innovators who are trained to co-create and build innovative tailor-made products to improve the delivery of the AU’s Agenda 2063. The fellowship is a step in the right direction, though it should be expanded to have more reach within Africa.

      The justice sector provides an opportunity for the EU to align its digital priorities with its justice and rule of law priorities in Africa within a sector where it is one of the biggest donors. AU member states can use digital technology to bring justice institutions closer to citizens and curb corruption tendencies.

      But these digital ambitions can only be realised when there is progress in bridging the digital gender divide, investment in digital infrastructure in poorly connected areas, setting the right legal and regulatory framework, but also the willingness of partner countries to harness the digital transition.

      The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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