Mobile Justice in 500 Words

“Mobile justice” is the idea that mobile technologies, broadly defined, can be used to extend and improve access to justice. An emerging field, mobile justice includes initiatives such as virtual courts in Kenya, live-streamed court proceedings in Massachusetts, and SMS-sharing of legal judgments in Ghana. These innovations can be launched by judicial systems, government agencies, civil society groups, or even technology companies, and almost always require the strong collaboration of all of these stakeholders.

The human rights movement in the last 50 years has done an excellent job of criminalizing those acts that plague most poor people across the globe, including extortion, human trafficking, and child labor. What is classified as a crime, however, is not always punished as such. Often, this is because the judicial systems in developing nations do not have the capacity required to enact sanctions, due to infrastructure and geographical challenges. In addition, citizens are often poorly informed of their laws and rights, court procedures, and available dispute resolution channels.

The next frontier in the human rights movement will be the bolstering of public justice systems, so that human rights abusers are held accountable for their crimes. Today’s technologies are particularly well-suited to confront this challenge and, if properly harnessed, can help to strengthen democracies over time.

In the same way that technologists, industry experts, and governments have mined the power of mobile for banking transactions and health delivery, entrepreneurial judicial actors are revitalizing the practice of justice. Court participants, lawyers, and judges are also mobile phone users and understand the value of that technology, especially as mobile broadband becomes more widely available. In addition, there are continuing needs for information-sharing, data storage, record-keeping, and court-community engagement, for which connection technologies are well-suited. Through public-private partnerships, a number of judicial systems are starting to explore the potential of mobile justice initiatives.

As with any emerging field, there are open questions: Are we putting a band-aid over system delivery issues that need a more permanent physical infrastructure response? What is “public” and what is “private” in our digitally connected era? What legal considerations must we bear in mind as justice system participants become ever more connected — and will the law need to catch up with technology?

Connection technologies offer incredible potential for improved judicial service delivery, such that governments are able to project their presence to parts of the territory previously unreachable. Not only can human rights issues be addressed more immediately and broadly, but enhanced rule of law also allows for a stronger business environment, more advanced development outcomes, and a more robust democratic society. When citizens and institutions alike can more easily access their rights, their laws, and their responsibilities, everybody benefits.

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