Digital transformation is affecting all aspects of our societies and economies.
Citizens and businesses of all sizes are now more than ever relying on information technologies to obtain and provide services.
Governments, in turn, are increasingly leveraging them to deliver better services. From education and healthcare to financial services and agriculture, digital is finding solutions to previously unsolvable problems and driving economic and social progress.
Perhaps more fundamentally, digital is transforming the nature of the relationship between public authorities and the people they serve, enhancing transparency, accountability, responsiveness, accessibility of government services and user experience.
But IT spending is not an end in itself. Ultimately, the goal of government IT spending is to better society.
Tufts University has advanced a framework for evaluating a "smart society," defined as one "in which digital technology, thoughtfully deployed by governments, can improve on three broad outcomes: The wellbeing of people, the strength of the economy, and the effectiveness of institutions."
Neither "smartness" nor the "technology" to be deployed is the end goal. A "smart society" ought to be defined by a framework that is based on outcomes. Its building blocks are what governments and policy makers aim to provide for their people. The technology is just a way to get there.
While there are many government sectors that have already begun to adopt technology, justice systems in many countries have not kept pace with changing ways of delivering services and meeting citizen’s expectations.
Considering the many challenges around the delivery of and access to justice that many societies face nowadays, the time has come for the justice sector to undertake the digital transformation that has brought so many benefits to other sectors.
United Nations member states agreed in 2015 to adopt Sustainable Development Goal 16, to promote just, peaceful, and inclusive societies that promote the rule of law and ensure equal access to justice for all. Access to justice is a crucial element that underlies nearly all other forms of development and allows people to exercise and enforce their fundamental rights.
The reality, however, is that billions of people across the world lack effective access to justice. An estimated 4 billion people live outside the protection of the rule of law because of their marginal positions in society.
In practice, this means that they may be cheated by employers, deprived of their property, subjected to violence or otherwise preyed upon by the powerful.
This difficulty in obtaining justice can result in a well-documented “cycle of decline” within vulnerability communities – even in developed countries – that triggers other non-legal problems and from which it is difficult to escape.
Among other effects, this results in economic deprivation and social exclusion. These problems can be even more serious in developing countries and hold back productivity and development.
These problems with the delivery of justice are often a symptom of the internal challenges court systems face. Many of these are administrative in nature, like case backlogs created by inefficient processes or lack of resources.
Justice system professionals are keenly aware of these challenges, and often just as frustrated as some citizens.
Like many different government services, justice systems in many places around the world have begun to turn to digital tools.
Examples of IT and cloud applications to justice systems include case management systems, e-filing and document management systems, collaboration tools, financial and HR management tools, digitalisation of courtroom applications/functions, help desk and public information functions and systems to streamline logistics for the public at courthouses.
Courtrooms in countries like Brazil and the United Kingdom have found productive uses for these tools. Courts face resource pressures as well. But digital tools empower them to meet them more effectively.
The courts and tribunals that integrate the justice system are much more than just another administrative agency. While efficiency and economisation of public resources is a virtue in itself, courts have a far more fundamental mission for society: ensuring justice for all their citizens. Here too, digital tools can help ensure that more people have access to justice.
There are many potential pitfalls on the path to digital transformation, but justice system professionals confronting these problems can take heart: they are not the first to confront these challenges, and there are proven ways to overcomes barriers.
Christopher Akiwumi is head of legal and government affairs at the Microsoft Corporation.