M-Sheria is a mobile legal helpdesk I am developing in Kenya together with my partners Gertrude Angote and Carol Mburugu (both lawyers from Kituo Cha Sheria), and John Karanja (our techie from Space Kenya). I got the idea for M-Sheria some years ago while I was thinking of access to justice gap as a logistical problem.
A few times a year, Kituo Cha Sheria organises a legal aid day. They open the doors of their office in Nairobi to all vulnerable people with a legal problem. A group of legal aid lawyers comes to their premises and sits behind tables, available to provide advice free of charge.
A queue usually develops at the gate as early as five or six in the morning, even though the gate only opens at nine. For these people who generally live below the poverty line (they live from less than $2 a day), coming to the office is very costly. Many traveled far to get advice, sometimes taking them as long as four hours. They had to organise the money for a ticket of the matatu bringing them to Nairobi, organise someone to take care of their children. And maybe more important, give up a day’s income.
Kituo Cha Sheria also established several community justice paralegal centers to serve the poor. After several visits to the paralegals in Kibera slum and Kamakunji slum it appeared to me that these places have great local resources. Trained paralegals like Bob with dispute resolution skills, a “getting things done” mentality and good moral standing. They work as neutral facilitators but they do pick sides: they pick the side of justice.
A big difficulty is that these paralegals have limited access to legal information, which they report as a major bottleneck.
Lawyers are a key source of actionable legal information. Information that moves beyond the general statement that a worker has a right to a safe workplace. But instead tells people what concrete criteria determine whether a workplace can be considered safe.
Kenya has less than 2,000 lawyers to serve a population of 41 million of which 50% lives below the poverty line. All of these law firms are based in Nairobi or one of the other big cities. While 80% of the population lives in rural areas. Approximately 500 lawyers occasionally work on a pro bono basis.
Some of these lawyers are access to justice champions who are dedicated to serving the poor. These are the lawyers that provide support to the paralegals and visit their community justice centers once a month or so. Sometimes more frequently, sometimes less, depending on how much time the paid work at their law firms in the business center of Nairobi leaves them. The local infrastructure makes visiting one of the community paralegal justice centers a time-consuming event. There are just so many hours in a day and the rent needs to be paid at the end of the month.
Thus the access to justice gap also is a logistical problem. The legal information that is commonly available is too general to apply to concrete legal problems. More tailored and actionable information exists, but is deeply hidden in law firms located at the business center of the city. In many ways, this is too far away for the people who need it most. Lawyers who want to provide legal aid face a tough time reaching out.
Coordinating and timing delivery of information, waiting in line, traveling to the source, while incurring serious opportunity costs: this all seems unnecessary evil for just getting access to information.
M-Sheria bridges the gap between the justice champions in the law firms and the people that need them. And reduces the costs and logistical barriers to serving the poor and vulnerable.
- Creates a central place where demand and supply can easily meet (a simple website).
- Uses the communication channels that people already use (SMS and USSD for the clients, website interface for the lawyers).
- Works from actionable legal information that is standardised but can be easily tailored (FAQ through USSD and website, personalised advice per SMS).
- Builds on local support units that help to act upon the legal information (community justice paralegals).
M-Sheria allows people to send a question about their legal problem per text message to a short code (currently 22380). The person receives a confirmation message and an automatically generated suggested answer. The question is categorised and published on www.msheria.com.
The members of the M-Sheria network (Kituo Cha Sheria moblises their network of over 500 pro bono advocates from throughout the country) read and answer the question online. The person who asked the question automatically receives this answer per sms. The paralegals in his community can help with either interpreting the answer and give reassurance, or take action upon it. These paralegals of course can also help to formulate the initial question, and ask questions themselves.
Questions and answers are anonymised and made public on www.msheria.com so the platform creates a repository of FAQ’s and develops into a public good. M-
Sheria thus hopefully overcomes the logistical barriers to delivery of legal information and access to justice. It may gradually develop a catalogue of frequent legal questions and answers.
In a next version, M-Sheria can include:
- USSD application for menu based interaction with the content on the platform.
- Intelligent Voice Recognition solution which reads out the answer to the subscriber in either English or Swahili.
- Location based mapping of paralegals and other people who can offer personal support.
M-Sheria unbundles legal aid services which probably impacts the funding model:
- The application itself delivers standardised legal information. This costs the person with a legal problem only one SMS. The revenues from this are used to develop better standardised legal information: more sharing rules, more localised information about where to go and who can help, etc.
2. The legal aid lawyers that are part of the M-Sheria network deliver the tailored legal advice through the system. The costs for this are the costs associated with one SMS. The revenues from these SMS’s go to the platform and are used to cover the costs for hosting, maintenance and improvement (including data analyses). The pro bono lawyers get rewarded in kind (they are highlighted as Shujaa – kiswahili for hero – on the website and in newsletters from Kituo Cha Sheria that have high circulation among their peers). Usually, these lawyers do their pro bono work in anonymity and they see how they can benefit from this type of exposure of their compassionate work.
3. The paralegals receive training in working with M-Sheria and are well equipped to help illiterate people use the services. They can also provide the dispute resolution skills and support to people solve their problem. Legislation currently prevents paralegals to work for a fee (they cannot charge their clients and have to pay themselves for traveling costs etc.). I see how the paralegals add a lot of value for people with a legal problem. A small study we did in several slums showed that people are willing and able to pay a small fee for these paralegal services, so there seems to be a genuine market for their services. Just like the legal aid lawyers in developed countries ask a monetary contribution from their clients, these paralegals could do the same.
M-Sheria has currently been developed, tested and soft-launched in Kibera and Kamukunji (Nairobi). The Dutch ING Bank (with Peter Smits being crucial in this) kindly sponsored this. We now seek to develop a true business model for M-Sheria where the services become paid and profitable “base of the pyramid” services that allow us to scale up rapidly. I will post updates on M-Sheria on this blog.
O, I forgot to tell you that M-Sheria is kiswahili for mobile law. Our slogan wakili mkononi means something like a mobile lawyer in your pocket. When we came up with this slogan we thought of a mobile phone in your pocket that gives you access to high quality legal information. The first three people I shared it with, however, had associations of a lawyer grabbing money from your pocket. So much work to do still.