Why the law is ready for disruption

Justice Innovators
08 Jun 2017

They are sophisticated and highly functional institutions, modelled on centuries of learning and experience throughout the world. They purport to be democratic institutions, but in reality often serve a small niche of the population who gain access by the sole virtue of their relative wealth. Their services are vital for economic growth and the smooth functioning of our society. Without them, you’re likely to be ripped off by your employer, find yourself at risk of petty crime, and unable to formalise a business or pay taxes.

I am, of course, talking about the world of law. Our law firms and courts in South Africa have some of the best practices and ideals in the world, but paradoxically, remain out of touch with ordinary people. Our constitution and the independence of our judges are famed the world over. Enforcement of offences however, ranging from political corruption, to sexual violence, to parking violations – not so much.

In principle, our law is – more or less – as excellent as laws can be. In practice however, it lets people down on daily basis – from the accused on remand who may be lucky enough to see his attorney before trial more than once, to the informal business baffled by SARS requirements.  One of the major reasons for this inadequacy is that the core principles of the justice game are based on antiquated procedures that have become fossilised.

But here’s the thing. That brief description of our out-dated legal system could be just as easily have been talking about African banks and finance houses a few years ago. But it’s certainly not true for such financial institutions today: “fintech” attracts more investment capital than any other sector on the continent, thanks to the stratospheric rise of truly mass-market services like M-PESA, which showed that banking can be profitable at the same time as being fair and accessible to all.

Law and justice, I believe, are ripe for exactly the same kind of treatment. Over the last few months I’ve spoken to lawyers, journalists, clerks of the court and entrepreneurs who all think the time is right to start changing the way we think about law. From electronic submission of evidence to off-the-shelf online contracting for small businesses, to digital textbooks for paralegals that guide them through complex and unfamiliar territory.

But there’s not yet enough momentum to overturn the resistance in the system. Some of that resistance is good, of course: the law is the law and must be treated with respect. Legal innovations that accidentally disenfranchise people must be avoided at all cost. Other resistance is simple laziness, or reluctance to embrace the opportunities for improving the system.

What I have seen is a lot of good will. A lot of people who, with the right tools on hand, could transform our justice system as rapidly and as energetically as the world of finance has turned on its head. What I’ve also seen is talent. South Africa scores highly on the innovation scale when it comes to the ‘techs. We’ve got world renowned innovators working in fintech, agritech, cleantech and so on: if just some of that energy could be diverted to lawtech, imagine the results.

A land claim accelerated by a firm of lawyers who dispense legal help to rural farmers via SMS, maybe? Or a team of savvy attorneys who spot opportunities in taking government to task for service delivery before we reach the point of burning tyres on the streets? Or even something as prosaic as affordable contracting services that can help local producers export overseas.

The practical, profitable opportunities are countless. The social benefit immeasurable. The number of justice innovators, however, terrifically small. Which means the potential for those who try to succeed is all the greater.

Hiil is currently offering up to 20 000 EUR through its Justice Accelerator challenge. Click here to find out more.

Adam Oxford works with the Hague Institute for Innovation of Law (HiiL) to co-ordinate work on its Justice Accelertor in Southern Africa. This year’s call for applications closes on 30 June 2017, and successful entrepreneurs will win seed funding, business acceleration and access to a global network of innovators and investors. Find out more by visiting innovatingjustice.com, or attending one of HiiL’s local events throughout June.

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