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Legal Innovation: The African Perspective.

By Hellen Mukasa


The “Golden Year” for legal tech, is what many described 2023 to be, and the African continent was no exception. While the legal tech Community in Africa is in its early stage, it experienced a boost as legal tech became the talk in many boardrooms and much traction was gained across different platforms. The continent witnessed a fusion of partners from the business and the development world e.g., corporate entities, UN agencies, and embassies working together to support the promotion of legal tech in Africa. Not only did we have the renown events to celebrate legal innovation such as the Africa Legal Tech and Innovation Awards, but we also witnessed the launch of bespoke international legal tech events like Future Lawyer Week launched in Africa. Launched in Uganda, the global event attracted participants from all over the world and created a lot of visibility for the blooming legal tech African community on the world stage.

Much of the celebration of 2023 as a golden year for legal innovation and technology was attributed to the increased funding to legal tech companies. However, the statistics remained low for African legal tech companies. This is due to factors such as lack of access to networking opportunities, inherent biases, and disregard of diverse founders from developing ecosystems as secure investing bets by venture capitalists. Despite slow funding, legal tech in Africa continued to grow steadily through local resources. Not only were law professionals and firms confronted with reconsidering their service delivery methods, but governments too. There were many adoptions of off the shelf cloud-based solutions and AI powered solutions while others, especially the government agencies, embarked on development of their own systems from scratch.

Opportunities for legal tech in Africa

In Uganda for instance, the National Development Plan (NDP III) specifically provides for digital transformation of key government agencies to improve efficiency and service delivery. We saw the strategy implemented in 2023 with the government introducing systems such as OBRS (Online Business Registration System) and ECCMIS (Electronic Court Case Management and Information System). The digital migration by the government agencies, especially the judiciary, cemented the fact that the future of legal practice is digital, and all professionals will have to gain digital skills to access the judiciary's services. Digital transformation has therefore become a fight not only for relevance but also for survival as a law professional.

The additional push and pull factors for law practitioners and governments alike include cross border transactions and the technology involved in such cases. Often, lawyers represent clients involved in technical cross-border deals for which augmented skills are needed for successful client representation. This has made the need for tech skills development for the entire chain of legal /justice service providers, advocates, state prosecutors, and judicial officers alike. This has been more apparent in the case of cyber-crime which becomes more sophisticated as technology advances. The ability to successfully investigate, prosecute, and convict criminals remains one of the biggest challenges for most African jurisdictions which are still operating low to no tech systems. Sophisticated tech or tech enabled crime remains on the rise on the African continent due to the capacity gaps in the judicial system in relation to both human resources and limited infrastructure. Deliberate attention of governments through adequate budget allocation for tech capacity building is necessary to reverse the situation.

Most African countries are still developing economies with systemic problems which affect the quality of life of their citizens, and access to justice is one such problem. Most people in Africa live in rural areas which are also low resource areas. E.g., In Uganda approximately 80% of the population is rural based while 90% of lawyers are based in urban areas. Legal innovation and technology in such a case is critical in bridging the gap between lawyers and rural clients. This calls for developing legal tech solutions with the end users in mind for legal tech to have impact. Essentially a delicate balance between the legal tech solutions designed to make legal easier, quicker, and cheaper should have an element of supporting both business and impact.

Challenges to adoption of legal tech in Africa

The glaring challenge which must be overcome for this to work is that the legal industry, especially in Africa where the level of education is still low, has for so long thrived on mystery. The inability of lay men to perceive the complexity of the work done by lawyers has enabled law professionals to bill heavily for work done. Lengthy litigation due to systemic issues in the judiciary also benefits the lawyers most, given that the average lifetime of a case in a country like Uganda is 5years. Legal tech provides self-help remedies to tech savvy clients through solutions like AI powered bots. This poses a threat of unravelling the mystery by creating transparency into how legal work is done, and it is hence perceived as a threat to lawyers. With increased client awareness about legal tech solutions and self-help remedies, lawyers are better off facilitating quick dispute, resolution or they are bound to lose out as clients are no longer willing to spend much time or resources in lengthy legal battles. On the flip side, the tech savvy lawyers will be more productive and efficient and therefore able to serve more clients and earn more.

Scaling the fears of adopting legal tech to institutional level, the governments in African countries are still grappling with high un-employment levels. Despite the obvious advantages of embracing legal tech and innovation, the fears of diminishing demand for legal jobs especially for routine tasks which may be done quicker and more affordable using AI and cloud solutions remains surreal. While several lawyers graduate annually, the economies in African countries are not developing fast enough to ensure increased demand for legal services and it's not uncommon for young lawyers to be assigned with the mundane, repetitive, and clerical assignments in law firms.

Insufficient infrastructure is another major barrier to seamless adoption of legal tech in Africa. In Uganda for instance, only 18 percent of households have an electricity connection and there is an urban– rural electricity gap of 85 percent. Half of Ugandans who do not use the Internet (86% of the total population) have no Internet-enabled devices such as computers and smartphones. At 16%, Uganda has the second-lowest smart-phone device ownership in the countries surveyed. Gillward et all (2019). Digital literacy is also a major barrier with many non-Internet users digitally illiterate. The digital divide in relation to gender is also high as indicated by the World Wide Web Foundation's Women’s rights online report, the gender gap in basic Internet access stands at almost 43% in most African countries. The cost of digitization of legal practice is usually embedded in the law firm’s legal fees which must be paid by the client and hence making the firm less competitive as its services are more expensive. At institutional level, it becomes an issue of budgetary priorities and acquisition of digital tools is usually at the mercy of development agencies which extend such support to governments.

Information security issues, confidentiality and mistrust are also challenges which make legal tech adoption difficult. Building user trust which depends on ensuring information security is identified as being a factor for the low adoption and limited success of legal tech and this is especially where the solutions are built locally. To ensure consistent and uninterrupted progress towards the growth of legal tech in 2024 in Africa, the challenges affecting adoption must be resolved.

Towards a future where Africa is the driving force for legal innovation

Africa has got the world’s youngest population, making it a very fertile ground for the evolving legal tech industry. If the opportunities are explored and exploited, and the challenges addressed, Africa can and will become a strong force in driving the growth of legal tech.

First and foremost, there must be reassurance that despite innovation and the advancement of legal tech, the human element in Legal practice will remain relevant due to the need for ethical considerations which require human judgement, insights and intuition in some cases which can only be gained from human interaction. Advocacy, law formulation and court room presentation are some of the examples of classic legal work which requires persuasion, a human trait.

Despite the fears around increasing unemployment, the rise of Legal tech also presents an opportunity for the creation of new jobs and the participation of all citizens in the digital economy. Innovative law firms and government agencies can build their own internal innovation teams offering jobs to talented developers to develop local solutions instead of buying off the shelf legal tech products.

Mass digital skilling of citizens to ensure that they can access the services offered by government agencies using digital tools not only creates job opportunities for that skilling but also generally improves the digital literacy levels and the ability for equal participation of citizens in the digital economy. Skills development extends law professionals and thus requires deliberate change in the law school curriculum to ensure that they graduate lawyers who have augmented skills in data management, cyber security, and analytics and are prepared for the realities of the digital future of legal practice. Investment in digital skilling should be holistic to ensure that beyond knowledge, the digital tools necessary to make a full transition are easily accessible.

Sustainable financing for innovation is another critical factor which will have to be prioritized. The legal sector remains largely underfunded and hence limited in capacity to digitally transform as required if it's to improve efficiency and service delivery with increased access to justice for all. In the case of Africa, we need to support the development of more local solutions by local people who appreciate the context within which the solutions will be utilized. This therefore calls for breaking systemic barriers to supporting African legal innovators as well. The predication is that there will be more investment in legal tech and Innovation in 2024 and consistent growth of the community and legal tech companies on the African continent.


About the Author

Hellen Mukasa is the Legal Lead at the Innovation Village and the co-founder of Legal Tech Lab which is a sector specific lab through which Innovation Village contributes towards the advancement of innovation and technology in the legal industry. She is a member of the Africa Regional Network of Civil Society Organizations on the UNTOC Review under the NET4U by UNODC. She’s a member of the National Technical Working Group of Ministry of Trade on the National Startup Policy. She’s the founding member of the Justice Innovators Community, an e-justice association promoting inclusive digitalization. She was recognized as Ecosystem Builder of the year 2022 by the Africa Legal Innovation and Technology Awards (ALI Awards). She’s the co-chair of Eco civilization Uganda wing and vice chairperson of the ICT Cluster of Uganda Law Society (ULS). She was recognized with the Legal Innovation Award 2023 at the Women in Law Conference and Awards by the ULS. #HellenMukasa #legal #innovation #Africa #legaltech #digital #investment

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