It’s been a little over two weeks since we launched FrontlineSMS:Legal and we’ve been honored to receive feedback from colleagues, partners, and… we’ll admit it, family. Some of that feedback, (we’re looking at you here, family), has been a well-intentioned, but furtive question, “So… What do you do… really?”
It’s probably about time we explain that.
FrontlineSMS:Legal uses mobile technology to improve the way that legal systems work. According to Making the Law Work for Everyone, a seminal report issued by the United Nations’ Commission on Legal Empowerment for the Poor, 4 billion people lack meaningful access to the legal resources they need. Whether it’s reporting a crime, opening a business, or demonstrating land ownership, the law is a part of almost everything we do. Those who live outside the reach of effective legal systems are more vulnerable to, well, everything.
There are a number of incredible people, organizations, and governments working to fix this problem in different ways. Legal aid programs, law school clinics, non-profit organizations, and bar associations all offer programs that offer free services to those who can afford lawyers. Some countries go even further, adopting alternative justice models. For example, India created mobile courts to bring services to people in remote areas. Other places, like Colombia (with some help), have set up one-stop shops, where people can take care of all their legal needs at once. All of these systems have had unique successes and challenges in reaching the “last mile.”
Legal systems, perhaps more than any other government service, rely on in-depth communication. It makes sense, then, that a lot of the challenges involved in legal systems are about communication, as opposed to the legal system itself. At the same time, the UN estimates that there are (currently) 5 billion active mobile phones in the world, making them the single most popular communication platform ever.
FrontlineSMS:Legal uses mobile technologies to lower the barriers to communication between legal systems and the people they serve. So, for India’s mobile court system, for example, FrontlineSMS:Legal could enable people to learn when the court was going to be in their community, file a claim, or schedule a hearing. Additionally, after the court left town, court administrators would have a digital case record that they could use to follow-up with people whose claims weren’t able to be resolved in one visit.
In Colombia’s case, FrontlineSMS:Legal could work with Community Conciliators and local leaders to use SMS as a referral system for cases that require the attention of the formal legal system. Additionally, FrontlineSMS:Legal can use these referrals to begin digital case records that can be forwarded to more than one service provider, such as social workers, lawyers, and hospitals, for people with multiple needs. Lawyers can also use FrontlineSMS:Legal products to stay in touch with clients over SMS, informing them of important events, such as hearings, depositions, or filing deadlines.
Legal systems are complicated and we don’t think that SMS can ever replace the extremely important person-to-person communication that makes them work. We do believe, however, that the world’s most popular communication platform will play an important role in reaching the 4 billion people that the law doesn’t. FrontlineSMS:Legal can help. Really.