Justice innovators can help building a bright future for our courts

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Last week, we held the sixth HiiL Innovating Justice Forum in The Hague. With over 100 professionals working in, with (or around) courts, we focused on the future of courts. Here (text) and here (photos) you can get an impression of the Forum. People’s responses indicated that they felt it was a true market- and workplace for justice innovation and we had a lot going on. 

The look and feel of justice

Three teams of creative professionals (including architects, interior designers, spatial planners, graphic designers) worked hard during the two days to finish their designs of the courts of the future. During the two months in the run up to the Forum, HiiL teamed up with Platform GRAS and had these three teams researching the brick and mortar part of justice. They presented their results at the end of the Forum and these included designs of courts as a transparent “greenhouse”, courts as a electronic billboards with a public forum inside, and courts as an app in the cloud that is supported by justice-drones. As one participant put it: “this type of concretisation of the abstract ideas and notions we tend to use in our discussions really helps and changes our thinking.”

Justice Innovation Awards and Human Rights Tulip

We also had the award ceremonies for the winners of the 2013 Justice Innovation Awards for greatest successful innovation (winner: Ushahidi from Kenya) and the most innovative idea (the Mobile Judge from Mozambique). Together with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we organised the awarding process of the Human Rights Tulip. The minister, Frans Timmermans, awarded it to Aahung from Pakistan.

Court challenges towards the future: regaining their independence

During the Forum, there were ongoing work sessions on four challenges for courts towards the future. About 100 professionals working in or with courts gave their input during these sessions. From the research we did, it appears that courts have a bright future, and we can help them by increasing their independence so they get:

  • More control over the procedures they have.
  • More freedom to become financially sustainable.
  • More IT innovation space.
  • More accountability and dialogue with society.

Digitising courts

I facilitated the sessions on IT opportunities for courts so I can describe a bit more in detail what took place there. Participants indicated they had little faith in the IT-absorption capacity of courts. Judges, lawyers, people working at ministries of justice and justice innovators alike expressed that they see two major bottlenecks:

  1. There is not sufficient funding for courts who want to innovate their procedures by using IT.
  2. Courts are too much bound by rules to go through the trail and error processes that successful IT innovation requires.

Some highlighted a few successful examples of IT innovation in courts, but still the general feeling was that IT innovation probably should come form outside the courts. One judge said that he did not really feel incentivised by these type of large-scale IT projects within judiciaries as they often are too much top-down. More judges shared that they sometimes feel that they are told to innovate, rather than feel incentivised. I get other signals as well from judges who really champion digitisation projects in the judiciary, but the feelings these participants expressed seem symptomatic for large-scale, top-down reforms.

Maybe it is because judges and lawyers lack the lean and mean minds that helps to make software professionals successful. Effective IT innovation often takes place because software engineers dare to rely on version 2.0. Even before they launch version 1.0. Adjudicators and other legal professionals still are more focused on covering all risks they can think of (and they can think of a lot because they are trained for this) rather than working towards rapid results and fast improvements. Risk-aversion almost seems hard-wired in the legal brain.

“Justice innovators should focus on developing iPad type of innovations that courts, eventually, want and buy from them”, was how one participant expressed it. Someone pitched this as Justice-as-a-Platform, where private organisations might invest in researching and developing excellent digitised procedures. When they developed a proven great product, courts can plug in their adjudication services through public-private partnerships. Of course, these private organisations would want to make a buck of of this, but so do the caterers serving lunch to our judges in the court canteen. Or the furniture suppliers who decorate our court houses.

I found this an interesting line of thought and developments: not waiting for the courts to adopt IT but show them how it can be done. And then make them want to buy it. Is there a venture capitalist who sees what I see?

We will process all the input we received during the work sessions in the final version of our Trend Report “Trialogue: Releasing the value of courts” that we will publish before Christmas.

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