After the great success of our “Courts of the Future” workshop in London at the end of April, Access Partnership, Microsoft and Strathmore Law School held a second symposium on the digital transformation of court systems last week in Nairobi, Kenya. We were able to gather judges, administrators, public officials, IT and policy experts from around Eastern Africa (the COMESA region) for panels, roundtable discussions and guided exercises. The potential of digital tools for justice is enormous, as these discussions made clear, but by sharing their experiences, attendees also mapped out the challenges African courts face in adopting new tools.
Participants were enthusiastic about the potential of digital tools for improving efficiency, transparency and access. Particular applications that seemed to resonate with judges included transcription and archiving of sessions, video-conferencing, and cloud-based document management. However, some expressed a degree of scepticism; past IT efforts have often failed to meet their needs, and, while several were enthusiastic about comprehensive end-to-end digital systems like those adopted by Abu Dhabi Global Market Courts, several others cautioned that smaller steps were needed, suggesting that digitalisation be introduced incrementally.
Balancing the two — the need and enthusiasm for digital solutions that can reduce bureaucracy and remove barriers for citizens, and the need for caution, security and trust in justice systems — will be difficult, and several attendees argued that digital tools are no substitute for reforms and cultural changes in courts. However, digital tools can solve several key issues in African courts, as our six takeaways show:
- Backlogs: Participants were particularly eager to stress the challenges of case backlogs. By streamlining the process, digital tools can speed up several parts of the justice process; although the consensus was that while digital tools will help, other procedural reforms are needed to take full advantage of new tools.
- “Bringing in” the lawyers: The importance of involving stakeholders — particularly judges themselves — in the consultation and design phases was well understood. However, the need to involve lawyers was also brought up, with attendees pointing out their involvement is essential to ensure digital systems are well-used after implementation.
- Importance of properly designed tools: A few justices expressed frustration at previously implemented digital tools that were then either under-utilised or poorly adapted to their needs. All expressed a desire to find better ways to tailor solutions to address their needs.
- Procurement challenges: Touched on in London, issues around procurement were discussed in more depth in Nairobi. Several judges and IT personnel said that previous efforts failed because the officials responsible for tenders did not understand or lacked the technical ability to articulate the needs of court system users. Additionally, institutional infighting over oversight and management of funds caused delays and inflated costs.
- Importance of having a champion: In order to overcome procurement challenges and muster the sustained political will to execute full digital transformation projects, several attendees agreed on the need for a single high-level champion to drive the process forward.
- Implications of AI tools: A few speakers were interested in discussing how AI tools will impact decision-making in the justice system, such as sentencing. Automated processes could extend to automated sentencing, done on the basis on inputted facts about the case, in the near future. Several reacted negatively to this notion, however, and stressed that human judgement cannot be stripped away from the work of justice.
These productive discussions will feed into a white paper on digital transformation of courts systems that Access Partnership is authoring.
You may also find interesting:
Watch a video from the Nairobi event here.
Three Lessons for Bringing the Courts System to the Digital Age — a review of our workshop in London.