In many parts of the world, people are forced to endure abuse and neglect because they have no other recourse. Whether it’s domestic abuse victims facing continuing violence or dispossessed landowners facing homelessness, the void caused by absentee legal systems can have life altering consequences. Without non-violent dispute resolution systems, citizens settle disagreements themselves, which can lead to a range of outcomes, including violent conflict.

Governments and citizens face enormous barriers to sustaining effective legal systems, including limited financial resources, a lack of physical infrastructure, uncertain public sentiment, and complex processes. FrontlineSMS:Legal uses mobile technologies to bridge formal and informal dispute resolution systems, increasing access to justice in the areas that need it most.

The extension of legal services to isolated areas is frequently limited by the high costs of developing the necessary infrastructure, such as court buildings. As a result, people in underserved areas have to travel long distances to reach legal assistance providers, with no guarantee of resolution. To fill the void, communities often rely upon local leaders such as mediators, tribal councils, and municipal governments to address conflicts as they arise. There are a number of legal aid efforts such as traveling courts, law school-sponsored clinics, and non-profit organizations that provide much needed services, but are unable to meet the volume of need. These structures, however, typically lack the resources and capacity to effectively engage with each other, limiting their ability to manage the volume and intensity of disputes that escalate beyond their control.

Despite these challenges, advances in communication technologies have created unprecedented opportunities to bridge the gap between formal legal services and informal dispute resolution providers. Nearly 5 billion people own SMS-enabled mobile phones globally, making SMS is the cheapest and most available communication platform in human history. SMS technology, with its unparalleled ability to reach citizens, can be used to coordinate referral and intake systems, resource allocation, and information distribution, between formal and informal dispute resolution providers.

FrontlineSMS:Legal is fundamentally devoted to extending the reach and improving the efficiency of legal service and dispute resolution providers using locally appropriate mobile technologies. FrontlineSMS is an open-source software that enables two-way text messaging between cheap mobile phones and laptops over cellular (GSM) networks. Our software combines an SMS gateway, customizable digital forms, a back-end database, and case management software to provide several core functionalities, including the digitization of legal records, information distribution, and case/workflow management. These low-cost systems enable remote coordination between informal dispute resolution workers and the formal legal system, improving service delivery, range, and cost efficiency.

In addition to this core platform, FrontlineSMS:Legal is developing additional plug-ins that will add value to local organizations working to provide legal services. FrontlineSMS:Legal products offer several key functionalities:

• FrontlineSMS:Legal users are able to enter data into digitized legal forms from remote locations via mobile phones. These digital legal records are stored centrally, searchable by identifying information, and aggregated to display trends.

• FrontlineSMS:Legal enables easy two-way distribution of information such as court information, hearing scheduling notifications, reminders, referrals, and intake forms wherever there is a mobile phone signal.

• FrontlineSMS:Legal develops customized case management systems that facilitate case and client management for legal service providers, automating workflows, such as client intake, form completion, elements of client maintenance, and, where necessary, information transfer.

We at FrontlineSMS:Legal are excited and committed to support the growth and extension of non-violent dispute resolution in underserved areas. We believe in and continue to explore mobile technologies that improve access to extend legal and dispute resolution services in underserved areas. This blog will be where we share future projects, partners, tools, ideas, and experiences. Stay tuned.