User-friendly interfaces for courts


A few days ago, I participated in a panel at a conference about the ecology of courts and the use of technology. A group of London based artist took the Bazaramba proceedings as a case study for how technology can be used in courts: 

“Bazaramba is a Rwandan citizen who sought asylum in Finland in 2003, where he was convicted nine years later for his role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. In a bizarre geographical inversion, the Finnish trial took place from 2009 to 2010 in improvised courts in Rwanda and Tanzania, with the legal proceedings transmitted to and from Bazaramba’s Helsinki prison cell via Skype and other videoconferencing technologies.”

The artists got access to a large amount of video footage of the trial from which they produced a short film. This film highlights some of the technology-related challenges the trial faced, like power cuts, background noises, unclear pictures as a result from suboptimal lighting and differences in skin colour. The question the artists asked was to what extent modern technologies can help to realise a legal utopia. Much of the debate, however, focused on the question whether or not we should allow more videoconferencing in our court rooms. And on the rules that should govern this technology.

You often see this happening when lawyers try to innovate: the focus quickly is on risks and rules: under what circumstances should we allow videoconferencing, what ought to be the minimum amount of pixels, should the suspect or witness have at least on face-to-face meeting with the judge, etc?

We live in a time where surgeons sitting in a room in New York perform the most sophisticated operations on patients lying on a bed in Paris. All thanks to technologies. It is sad to see how we get stuck in discussions about whether or not to allow videoconferencing, while the rest of the world has a conversation on Skype or Google Hangouts.

Justice logo


(This logo was developed as part of a design assignment I developed about the courts of the future)

The film about the Bazaramba case had two parts that reminded me of some of my experiences in Kenya. One is a scene where a Finnish judge talked Finnish to a Finnish lawyer in courts in Arusha and Kigali, and the other is a scene where the Finnish prosecutor gave directions to people in Finnish while a group of Rwandese people watched. This trial was about bringing someone to justice who brought terror to the families of these bystanders. But the Rwandese people in the film looked as if they did not know what was going on. All they saw a bunch of strangers from a far away country, talking in a language they never heard before, following a procedure they did not understand. I got the impression they felt left out.

Often when I tell someone in Kenya I am from The Hague I have something to explain. Many people think I live in a prison or court, since they know The Hague but do not know it is an actual city. The branding of The Hague as city of Justice and Peace has been slightly less effective in this part of the world. In recent years, people regularly ask me a lot of questions about the proceedings of the International Criminal Court in the Kenya cases. The hearings used to be live-streamed. Many people gathered around in their homes, hotel lobbies or in one of the abundant internet cafes in one of the slums in Nairobi to watch. They hoped to see justice being done on behalf of the victims from the post-election violence. But they saw something else, so they told me. What they saw was not something that has to do with justice. All they saw was  a big room filled with many people that they never saw before. People who they could not relate to, not people like them. Talking about things they did not understand. Talking a lot. While at the same time nothing really seemed to happen.

It feels like a missed opportunity. The current state of technology allows us to bring justice procedures in the homes of people. To the people directly affected. Even the procedures that take place at the other end of the world. But courts do not seem able to use the technologies we have to create user-friendly interfaces of courts. So instead of justice being done, these people saw something that disappointed them.

One of the first lessons for justice innovation is: forget about the rules. Focus on finding out how technology can help us to deliver better and more justice rather than on the regulatory framework. So we should not focus on the rules to regulate videoconferencing but on the question how this technology can be used to make justice work. For the people directly and intermediately involved, the legal profession and for society.

We seem to be far removed still from user-friendly interfaces for courts. With videostreamed interfaces that explain to people what’s going on. The technology to do such is readily available. A simple liveblog would do the job and help to really increase transparency and publicity of adjudication. Maybe it is because lawyers find forgetting about the rules one of the most difficult things. It is our core business, in the end. At least, that is what they told me at law school.

But things seem to be changing. Did you know that in recent years almost half a billion dollars was invested in legal tech startups? That is all justice technology R&D money not minding too much about the rules but rather on investors interest.

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