How tech is set to disrupt Africa’s legal sector

Updated on 8 August 2016

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Which-of-these-dated-online-strategies-is-your-business-guiltyThe legal sector has long been thought of as unweilding and averse to change.

But can the rise of the tech startup breathe new life into the sector?

Connor Sattely thinks so.

“We see technology as an enabler of great ideas,” says Sattely, a business accelerator agent at the Hague Institute for Innovation of Law (HiiL), an organisation that works to promote better access to legal systems and justice across the world.

According to The Hague-based non-profit organisation, there’s an estimated four billion people who do not have access to justice, and innovations in tech are steadily closing the gap.

This is of particular significance for the African continent.

Through technology, benefits such as efficient registration of birth, inheritance dispute resolution, or access to law services to people in even the most remote areas is possible, Sattely says.

“The ideas themselves on how to access legal services are born out of necessity by those who experience the lack of access to justice first-hand. As access to technology grows, it can definitely enable increased access to justice through media and communication tools, micro-payment tools, etc. The technology doesn’t always have to be based on rocket science; we see some interesting initiatives using SMS, Twitter, video and WhatsApp in an original way on the continent,” he says.

HiiL is aiming to be at the forefront of the technological advancement in the legal sector and has over the past 6 years presented the Innovating Justice Challenge, an initiative which aims to “release entrepreneurial energy into developing innovations in the justice sector”.

The competition, which focuses on SME empowerment and family justice rewards the winning innovations​ across Africa and the Middle East with up to €160 000.

“We see technology as an enabler of great ideas”

SME South Africa speaks with Connor about where are we most likely to see disruption in the legal environment and why a wide skillset and an ability to bring together a strong team is still a crucial indicator of success even for legal startups.

Where the future lies in the legal environment

HiiL runs Justice Needs and Satisfaction (JNS) surveys in countries around the world to determine where the “pain points” are in justice systems, and where they need improvement the most. Based on those surveys, we can identify the areas that we see are most fertile ground for innovation and disruption to occur. In a way, it’s a “sneak peek” into the future of what might be the best big thing in the legal environment.

In Uganda, for instance, our 2016 report found that land disputes, family matters, and domestic violence were some of the main issues. As such, in our Shortlist this year we have initiatives focused on exactly these issues. We’re looking forward to seeing which has the potential to be the most disruptive in the near future.

The first point of entry for justice innovation is often building services that provide information about basic rights using new techniques. All too often, laws that are in place, aren’t known. What are my rights? Where do I go to if I have a problem? There is still a lot of room to make progress in this space.

In terms of technology, we see things like block-chain technology coming up, micro-transactions, increasing transparency in law-making and budget spending, innovative financing of justice, taking justice to villages or slums with mobile, pop-up or low cost “courts”. Bringing virtual and augmented reality and gamification into justice processes also shows a lot of potential.

Opportunities and possibilities for innovation

On the SME side [the opportunities] could be something as simple as a mechanism for helping small businesses to enter into legal contracts across borders, to an application for reporting corruption. On the family justice programme it could include bringing down the cost of obtaining paperwork like marriage or birth certificates, to facilitating the adoption process to preventing or reporting domestic violence.

What makes innovation in Africa difficult

The main factor is trust. Governments and justice institutions face internal barriers to innovation such as bureaucracy, corruption, or lack of skills. Even if they do innovate, however, they face an external barrier as often they are not perceived as neutral arbiters of justice.

Scaling can be a challenge in some areas of the justice sector because of differences in national legislation and sovereignty issues. But these obstacles should not be overestimated. The legal sector does have some – sometimes nasty – monopolies to deal with. HiiL can help with overcoming them. From the private sector, trust is still an issue: how would you trust an application that can handle your divorce for you? The key is enabling LOCAL entrepreneurs to create this technology and to conduct outreach in the community to build trust.

Additionally, we find that innovations in the justice sector are rightfully quite focused on the social impact they might have. Taking these socially-oriented initiatives and working on their sustainability over the long-term, and their ability to scale to other contexts and regions, is a challenge we face often.

“A new cadre of entrepreneurs is rising to focus on the legal barriers preventing many of these SMEs from being successful”

How HiiL playing its part

We see Africa as the world’s most entrepreneurial continent. All across the continent families, individuals, and small groups put together businesses – both formal and informal – to support their children and to benefit their local economy. At the same time, a new cadre of entrepreneurs is rising to focus on the legal barriers preventing many of these SMEs from being successful.

The role we are hoping to play in Africa is to support these entrepreneurs by providing business development mentoring and assistance, funding opportunities, and impact measurement tools. What makes them successful, in the end, is not us: it’s them. It’s their drive that will determine whether their innovation ends up being successful and impacting the lives of hundreds or millions.

Legal know-how – crucial or not in finding success?

Legal know-how is important, particularly because each of our initiatives must have a legal or justice element. However, as with any entrepreneur, a wide skillset and an ability to bring together a strong team is a crucial indicator of success. Ability to market and pitch an initiative, the drive to find and create sales/expansion opportunities, the skills necessary to create a product are all elements of being an entrepreneur that go past only a law degree.

Challenges in SA that could prove to be areas of opportunities for entrepreneurs

In our 2016 cohort, we have shortlisted five innovations (out of a total 69 for this year) from South Africa. These innovations are focused specifically on empowering SMEs through legal/incorporation services, and on helping resolve family justice issues.

SA and the global picture

SA is an interesting market because it has legal startups that compete with European or US based startups and startups that are competing with cool initiatives coming out of Uganda or Malawi with a tremendous potential for social impact. We hope to see more innovations from South Africa connecting to Nigeria, Kenya – two other high growth areas we are investing in.

The startups that are pushing technological boundaries

The teams of DIYLaw from Nigeria and MSME garage in Uganda have fascinating plans to take access to justice to the next level. In general, I would invite you to have a look at Online voting of this year’s selection will start on 3 September. Everyone can come and have a look at the set of innovations we see coming up with potential. Technology is only one side of that.

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