Africa’s Courtrooms: More Advanced Than Western Countries?

Is it possible that courtrooms in third world countries are advancing at such rapid pace they may be overtaking western nations when it comes to efficiency and effectiveness?

Below Jon McNerney, Chief Executive Officer of CaseLines, discusses the rapid growth happening in Africa and some of the software solutions that are eradicating the same issues western nations still face thanks to  established legacy systems.

An effective and functioning legal system isn’t just good news for those that deal directly with courts, but for societies and their businesses too. Recognising this, courts worldwide have begun to upgrade to more modern methods of delivering justice. For many, including the Crown Courts of England and Wales, this has meant upgrading to a digital evidence management system. Digital justice systems are not only aiding improvements in the rule of law, but also assisting countries in meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 16, which is provide access to justice for all and “build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”

Most recently, we have seen an increase in interest from the countries on the continent of Africa, who are now installing systems as advanced as anywhere in the world. This is firstly down to advances in cloud software, such as the Microsoft Azure cloud platform that supports CaseLines, which can reach systems globally and provide free, instant software upgrades. Secondly, developing countries are at an advantage when it comes to upgrading due to fewer legacy issues than Western courts. Building a modern digital infrastructure from scratch, like we have witnessed in the commercial courts in Dubai and Qatar, can put you in a much stronger position than in countries saddled with legacy systems.

At the beginning of the year, our first significant partnership was launched with COMESA, the Court of Justice for the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa. Covering twenty-one Member States, the supra-national COMESA Court, has now implemented a digital justice system which is the most advanced software we have produced. Kenya’s Court of Appeal is also participating in a proof of concept as part of a pro-bono initiative, while South Africa has begun to upgrade all its Civil courts. These systems offer a lower cost alternative to the way courts are currently run and by combining traditional court processes with the power of modern technology, will help deliver a far greater efficiency and transparency to the process of justice in Africa.

One of the most significant of these factors is down to how digital justice systems eliminate the need for paper in the trial environment. Paper is a huge burden for courts. In the UK alone, the amount of paper previously used by the courts would reach the height of the London Shard every four days if stacked from the ground up. The judicial systems generated a million pages of documents a day, 365 million pages a year, prior to the implementation of Crown Court Digital Case System. Few organisations also realise the true lifetime cost of handling this much paper. These include the staff cost of filing and retrieval, the space costs of storage and the delays of using couriers and the DX to ship paper. While an individual piece of paper initially costs well below 1p, internal research from CaseLines has showed it can spiral to as high as 25p once these factors are included. Covering a great distance, the courier bill for moving paper around faced by the COMESA Court of Justice’s members nations was previously costing thousands of dollars each month.

By introducing digital bundles, all case data is instead stored in one place, which everyone can gain fast access to on any device. Making it quick and easy to navigate, annotate and direct parties to specific pages. These collaboration tools enable enhanced pre-trial preparation amongst all stakeholders, including judges, lawyers and witnesses, with multimedia evidence and secure role validated video conferencing for virtual hearings. Security is right at the heart of the platform. The secure cloud-based platform gives users complete control over who may or may not access a case. It also provides a full audit trail of all actions, so you know where sensitive data is at all times, while also ensuring there is no way evidence can be lost or tampered with, protecting the integrity of the institutions that use it.

Key to the transition has been how the system puts judges at the forefront of modernisation, allowing them to build an efficient courtroom but in a format that feels familiar. Previous paper-based working practices hadn’t allowed judges to properly prepare for cases. How can they when they might not see key evidence or files until just before the case is heard in court? Digital justice means judges can now log into case files securely from their home offices, improving preparation, cutting unnecessary travel and speeding the process of preparing judgments after a hearing.

In addition, an unexpected early benefit in the UK Crown Court was a 50% reduction in hearings as a result of earlier access to evidence and more early guilty pleas. Using digital software has also made securing testimony much easier, a problem which currently leads to thousands of cases being adjourned. Policemen need no longer take time off work to travel or attend court, but can provide a digital testimony instead, while vulnerable witnesses can be spared the difficulties of being present at a trial.

The problems of justice in Africa are well documented. Of course, there is corruption and inefficiency, some of which stem from under-investment. But there are also examples of real commitment and people achieving wonders with very little investment. An example is the Registry in Kenya’s Court of Appeal, managed entirely from an Excel spreadsheet, which is a model of tidiness and good order. The huge appetite for change and improvement has now put African Courts at the forefront of the legal technology drive, which we hope is just beginning.

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