Justice Innovation from British Columbia: built from the justice needs of its users


Last week, my colleague Henk Jan Scholten and I visited the Legal Services Society in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. This place has been described to me by some as the Silicon Valley for the justice sector, especially when it comes to public legal information applications.

It was incredibly fascinating to learn more about their upcoming innovation from the LSS team of passionate experts. MyLawBC (launched in June 2015) aims to become an online resource where people will find guided pathways for their legal problems. These guided pathways are “built around your needs, where you can work through your legal issue, ending with an individualised action plan, information, and the services you need. A site that also provides a hotline, live chat, or automated attendant service. A site that anyone can go to and say “Here’s MY solution to MY legal problem.”

MyLawBc will be a great innovation in legal information strategies. The guided pathways approach links to the state of the art in legal informations strategies and builds on what we know works as it:

  • Improves knowledge of rights and provides actionable and practical information on how to practice rights rather than merely what people’s rights are
  • Delivers information in a timely manner (objective criteria/model solutions when needed)
  • Builds confidence, empower users to pursue a justice journey
  • Promotes early action and prevent dispute escalation

MyLawBC shows some similarities to HiiL’s Rechtwijzer platforms as Sherry MacLennan, the LSS director of Public Legal Information and Publications, explains. LSS gave us the opportunity to present Rechtwijzer to some judges, people form the Ministry of Justice, Mediate BC and their own staff, which got some coverage by Ian Mulgrew of the Vancouver Sun.

Sharing the experiences we developed since we started the Rechtwijzer in 2006 shows how cross-jurisdictional cooperation can be established. We just need to shift perspective and think of justice processes and procedures from the perspective of users and their justice needs rather than from the perspective of substantive and procedural rules and rights.

Legal needs studies show that people across the world more or less do the same things when they experience a legal problem, have similar justice needs and can benefit from similar support. This implies that real economies of scale could be reached. In research about to what works, in designing user-centered, problem-solving (online) procedures, in developing self-help tools that empower people.

It would be very interesting to see how we could work towards the development of international standards, practices and maybe even platforms in the future.


Online Dispute Resolution 2.0: Moving beyond fast, fair and efficient


The field of ODR has matured. That much became clear during the ODR 2014 conference hosted by UC Hastings and Stanford Law School last week. The line up included names like Mitch Kapor, Charley Moore (founder and CEO of Rocket Lawyer), Kent Walker (General Counsel of Google), Jim Silkenat (President of the ABA), Geoff Brigham (General Counsel of Wikimedia) and many more. Topics they covered ranged from reputation and trust issues for businesses to IP and privacy issues and the use of IT in government. Indeed, the term ODR is linked to a broad range of topics.

I got the opportunity to share the podium with Peter Salem of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. We discussed online dispute resolution for family and divorce issues. An issue I have been working on for the past ten months with the Rechtwijzer platform, which goes live this fall.

I was happy to see how the Rechtwijzer platform seemed to show the potential for ODR in their field to judges, lawyers, ADR and ODR experts in the audience. ODR for family and divorce issues often runs into scepticism. Most people do not see how ODR can work for such a complicated and emotional dispute as divorce. Even ODR experts seem to think there are very limited opportunities for moving in that direction. Maybe it is because of its value proposition and subsequent design principles.

The notion of ODR emerges from the field of e-commerce and was first put to practice by Ethan Katsh. Its potential really became visible when Colin Rule made it work at eBay and PayPal, where the resolution center processes about 60 million disputes between buyers and sellers per year. Indeed ODR is often seen as appropriate for low value, high volume cases. As the presentations during the ODR 2014 conference also showed, the value proposition of ODR has always been that it helps people to get fast, fair and efficient dispute resolution. Automation and extreme simplification of processes is especially appealing for people with a small claim for whom the legal system is not an attractive option.

An ODR platform for family and divorce issues needs a different value proposition and design principles.

Fast, fair and efficient does not resonate with the divorce professionals working in mediation, in our courts or who otherwise help people at these difficult moments in their lives. The people who experience how emotions play an important role in coping with divorce. Who see the full complexity of getting to a divorce agreement that is built to last. That achieves the best for the children, the separating spouses and others involved. Or who see the pro se litigants file for a divorce in their court who go unrepresented because they either cannot afford a lawyer or want to stay in control of their process. Fast, fair and efficient seems an inappropriate proposition for relational disputes.

Let us acknowledge it: divorce is tough and the divorce process is complex and difficult. Technology in no way will be able to make it fast and efficient nor should it aspire to do such. But it can help people by providing structure for reflection, communication and solution-building. And by providing information, model solutions and support tools. The value proposition of ODR for relational disputes should rather be about an interest-based, empowering, fair and sustainable process and result: Divorce is tough. We will empower and support you throughout the process.

From the responses I got to my presentation we seemed to have succeeded to translate this into a platform that can do this. For divorcing people and the professionals that help them. Following a process of co-creation with judges, lawyers and mediators. And of continuous user-testing. Gradually working towards ODR that works for relational disputes.

And unleash its untapped potential.

The technology of access to justice: Rechtwijzer 2.0


I am excited to go to Austin and sit in a SXSW panel to discuss Justice 2.0. Great to share the podium with my friend and partner Colin Rule, founder of Modria and the “godfather of ODR” and Beth Trent of CPR, the leading organisation that helps global business and lawyers resolve complex commercial disputes.

As a big fan of the groundbreaking work Colin and Beth have done in the area of online platforms for consumer and business disputes that outperform courts, I see how ODR gradually changes the world of dispute resolution. During our panel, I will highlight an element of Justice 2.0 that is a bit closer to the justice system: a justice platform called Rechtwijzer 2.0.

At HiiL, we partner with the Dutch Legal Aid Board and Modria to develop an access to justice platform that builds on www.rechtwijzer.nl, the earlier diagnosis and triage website we built (Corry van Zeeland is the actual brains behind what others say might be a gamechanger). The Legal Aid Board has been working on www.rechtwijzer.nl as of 2007. This application offers legal diagnosis and triage, basic information about rights and obligations and concrete tools and other support for solving legal problems.

Rechtwijzer 2.0 takes this a few steps further. It offers a platform for legal information, advice and services, some of which are automated. It enables people to work on solving their legal problems in their own words, at their own pace, from their own homes. Together with the other person. With professional service providers readily available to help them. To mediate, advise, decide or to review the end result. Lawyers and adjudicators working with Rechtwijzer 2.0 offer their services online, unbundled and on a pay as you go basis against fixed fees.

Rechtwijzer 2.0 thus is a justice platform that builds on the actual behaviour of people with a legal problem. As legal needs studies show us, people with a legal problem across the globe show more or less similar behaviour: most people first look for information about their problem, rights, obligations, and options for solving their problems. People often first try to solve their legal problem themselves and seek help if this does not work. They generally want support with contacting the other party, communicating, negotiating. And also have a need for neutral information that help them determine a fair result.

Initially, Rechtwijzer 2.0 focuses on divorce cases in The Netherlands, but the platform can be easily configured to other problems and other countries. When we design justice processes on the basis of what works rather than on the basis of normative rules, international standards, best practices and even standardisation all of a sudden become within reach.

Justice 2.0 for me is much about designing these types of justice platforms. Justice as a platform that starts from the behaviour of people, the support they need and the things that work for this.

Look and feel of justice: designs for the courts of the future


We generally do not think in terms of UX design, user interfaces, look and feel when we think of courts, procedures or the justice system more broadly. Lawyers focus on legal code and rules and do not bother about developing user-friendly interfaces for the justice system.

What if we would? What could we learn from giants like Google, Facebook, Tumblr, etc.? Things like “do one thing well”, “build for yourself first”, “don’t assume you have the answers”, “prepare to scale”, “put your customers first”, etc. We could start by focusing on how the legal system can build on actual human behaviour, intuition and preferences. 

A little bit of UX design for our courts…

HiiL explored this together with Platform GRAS. Last year, I first developed a pilot project which yielded some inspiring results, including this “magic robe” designed by Lambert Kamps.

Screen Shot 2014-03-02 at 13.15.47

It can be worn in four different manners giving the judge four completely different looks. Starting point for this was the observation that in fact judges do many different things during trial, picking up many different roles.

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After this pilot, together with Gabriel de Graauw, Sandra Grabs and my colleague at HiiL Laura Kistemaker, I developed the assignment for designing the courts of the future. It was part of our HiiL Trend Report Trialogue that found three strategies implicit to most courts:

  1. Courts as an instance of last resort: courts as a place where people can go if all else has failed.
  2. Courts to provide legal clarity: courts as a place that solely focuses on legal questions.
  3. Court to solve problems: courts as a place where all interventions needed to solve the (legal) problems of people come together.

Three interdisciplinary teams (combining architects, interior designers, graphic designers, urban planners, cartoonists, lawyers) each focused on one of these strategies and developed a rich collection of designs. The teams presented them during our Innovating Justice Forum last December in The Hague. It was very inspiring to see how the thoughts and tools of all these different worlds inspired the over 100 top notch justice sector professionals during the forum. To see how “these concrete visualisations of justice really helped thinking about abstract concepts of justice and the future of courts”.

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The designs were published as part of our Trend Report but we decided that this journey should not end here. Hence, during the coming month (4, 18 and 25 March), we bring together a diverse group of people in our Justice Innovation Lab. The design teams are joined by urban planners of the city of The Hague (that sees itself as the international city of Justice and Peace and thus should have a leading role in courts design innovation), the heads of facilities of the Dutch judiciary, people from the government buildings agency that is in charge of the courts, and court professionals who would have to work in these court designs. The goal is to see how we can make court design innovation happen.

As I said, a little bit of UX designs for courts. They could surely use it.

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.

Directions to innovation: South by Southwest.


I have been invited to speak at South by Southwest (SXSW), the conference where Twitter got big, Foursquare got launched, and people like Mark Zuckerberg, Malcolm Gladwell and Al Gore tend to deliver keynotes. Together with Colin Rule of Modria and Beth Trent of CPR, I will explore Justice 2.0. I bring the perspective of dispute resolution technology as a solution for the legal problems of everyday life on the stage.

In a digitised world, courts will still be key for delivering justice as they are the only institutions that have an adequate answer to the element of “make me”. A crucial element when one disputant wants to change something or get paid something while the other might benefit form the status quo and needs to be nudged towards changing the situation. Courts can do that as they are back up by state coercion.

Our recent trend report “Trialogue” indicates how the future of courts actually can be bright again. A big challenge for our courts is to make full use of the opportunities modern technologies offer them.
Together with the Dutch Council for the Judiciary, our team at HiiL co-created a completely online procedure for neighbour disputes, where both parties and judges login to an web-based problem-solving platform. The new Signpost to Justice platform offers a similar environment, initially for people who are breaking up. Difference is that a large group of legal professionals offer their services on this platform. Unbundled, for a fixed fee, on a pay as you go basis. M-Sheria builds on this innovation but adopts SMS technology so slum dwellers in Kenya get access to justice.

For me, these kind of online platforms are a core element of Justice 2.0. They bring together disputants in a problem-solving interface where they find technology-based support tools. And find unbundled, online support of legal professionals. With an online option of a neutral decision by an adjudicator. All just one click away.

Judges, lawyers and mediators need to be service-oriented as the next generation citizens will demand that the justice sector keeps up with the pace of technological developments. Innovating justice thus is not only a matter of innovating procedures, but also of innovating professionals.

I love to explore how this connects to the experiences in ODR that Colin has and the business dispute resolution experiences of Beth. I am looking forward to our session on Justice 2.0, which is facilitated by Joseph Markowitz, scheduled for 10 March this year and part of an extremely rich programme in Austin, Texas.

Justice innovators can help building a bright future for our courts


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.