Why Justice-related Services are an Opportunity for Innovation

Monique Horwitz
10 Jul 2020

Last year, a billion people around the world experienced a justice-related problem. And every year, 70% of those problems go unresolved. That’s 700 million people who might be victims of crime or abuse, or caught in a dispute with neighbours or employers. They might lack the right paperwork to exercise their rights, or claim their inheritance. They might have suffered financial fraud, or experienced consumer problems.

Some of the negative impacts of this are obvious – if you’ve been a victim of crime, or lost money that you’ll never get back, for example. Less obvious are the side effects of injustice, such as illness, stress or the breakdown of relationships. When individuals are unable to resolve their problems, the whole society suffers.

But every good entrepreneur knows that where there is a problem, there’s an opportunity to solve it in a new and innovative way.

Time for change

The legal and justice sector remains one of the few areas that has remained relatively impervious to disruption, up until now, at least. While the worlds of finance or energy have been transformed by startups pushing innovation, anyone who has queued for documents to be certified, to file a police report or tried to initiate legal action will be struck at how outmoded options for resolving even the simplest issues are.

And many routes to resolution are expensive too. Lawyers cost money, with hourly rates that can be a substantial part of even a mid-income family’s monthly income. Taking a day or three off to visit the small claims court adds insult to injury for small traders pursuing claims. Less costly alternatives to formal legal processes, such as mediation, often produce better outcomes – but good luck finding someone who’ll help you settle a family dispute in the least harmful way if you don’t know where to start looking.

Things are changing, slowly, for the better. The coronavirus crisis has highlighted how unfit for purpose many of our paths to resolution are, and how innovation can address long-standing issues. Over the last few months we’ve seen unprecedented things in South Africa: courts accepting testimony via video conference; community paralegals serving their clients over WhatsApp; Facebook chatbots that help laid-off workers understand their rights; landlords and tenants, and divorcing parents settle their differences in mediated Zoom sessions.

Each has happened on a small scale, but has shown that big change can happen, and indeed has to happen to deal with the rising number of justice problems that Covid-19 has brought.

Disrupting, digitalising, modernising, reducing costs, scaling – this is the entrepreneurs’ creed. And if there is any sector that needs this kind of new thinking, this is it. When the UN secretary general called for governments to embrace innovation and online services to address a surge in gender-based violence as homes became prisons, he was calling for a global revolution in how we address systemic issues.

For the last five years, the HiiL Justice Accelerator has been supporting innovators and entrepreneurs in the region in their work to prevent or resolve justice-related issues. We’ve worked with lawyers who are helping small businesses to formalise, technologists who have developed chatbots for victims of crime, and mediators who want to calm the process of family break-ups. Many entrepreneurs we’ve worked aren’t immediately aware that they are solving a justice issue at all, just helping to make the world a fairer place.

We’re passionate about the potential for sustainable, scaleable solutions – for-profit or not-for-profit – that can reach millions of people, and start chipping away at those headline numbers, bringing 700 million down to zero. And we’re looking for people to join us. Apply for the HiiL Justice Accelerator today.