The Judiciary adopted e-filing of all cases in Nairobi from July 1, 2020. This was an unbelievable milestone.
Chief Justice David Maraga said this step was the culmination of recommendations and interventions from over a decade ago, steering the justice system towards everyday use of technology.
Aside from the usual human aversion to change, there was serious internal and external resistance to embrace technology and its benefits from greater transparency and accountability to cost savings.
Other significant barriers included lack of electricity, internet connectivity and ICT equipment. Also, until just about eight years ago, there was no internal ICT technical capacity in the Judiciary.
Nonetheless, success occurs when opportunity meets preparation. There has seemingly been quick uptake of online hearings following the outbreak of Covid-19.
From 2012, the Judiciary identified technology as part of its focus in preparing the institution to respond to aspirations and demands of Kenyans. ICT was recognised as an enabler for transformation and as the key driver in enhancing service delivery.
The payment process was the first to embrace technology. The benefits of this were obvious and as Chief Registrar Anne Amadi remarked at the launch of e-filing, cashless payments have leapfrogged revenue collection five-fold from Sh500 million to Sh2.7 billion. This was a quick win for the Judiciary and one that did not require a heavy financial outlay.
As this was happening, there was need to tackle larger obstacles to the institutional adoption of technology. Because of the uniqueness of the Judiciary – from the nature of its work to its spread across the country and the varying state of its infrastructure – there was no off the shelf solution available. The Judiciary, therefore, needed to develop a system unique to its requirements.
Automated systems inherently assume the existence of a manual system.
It wouldn’t be a lie to state that while the Judiciary was very manual in its operations, it had very little in the form of systems. There were no standard operating procedures for key processes.
Essentially, a user filing a case was likely to have a different experience from another in the same institution, in a different town. The procedure was largely determined by the person serving you. The weaknesses in this were obvious – including the fact that that knowledge was also vested in a retiring cadre of staff.
Without standard operating procedures even manually, automation would not be possible. The Judiciary, therefore, began the process of developing standard procedures for different processes – from filing cases to paying fees and fines. Procedure manuals were developed for the Magistrates Court, High Court and Courts of Equal Status and the Court of Appeal. Manuals were also developed for internal administrative processes including Accounts and Human Resource.
With a codified, manual system now in place, there was a foundation to commence automation.
Funding from the World Bank via the Judicial Performance Improvement Project had enabled the manual codification of the processes.
The project also delivered 1,100 computers, supported internet connectivity and solar power installation in courts across the country.
Together with other development partners, the project supported a pilot on e-filing and audiovisual recording and transcription in the Commercial Division of the High Court in Nairobi. The landmark first e-ruling was delivered following social distancing measures.
Covid-19 enabled the Judiciary to leapfrog from the pilot and roll out e-filing in all Nairobi courts – which handle the bulk of all the Judiciary’s workload. There are plans to roll out e-filing to Mombasa and Kisumu by October.
Kenya is currently ranked 61 by the World Bank in its ease of doing business index.
An indicator in ease of doing business is in relation to dispute resolution – is it quick, efficient and transparent? E-filing is a critical step in making court proceedings more agile and transparent.
Other ICT initiatives in the pipeline in the Judiciary include audiovisual recording of proceedings and transcription. Technology in the Judiciary is disrupting business as usual in this institution that’s globally driven by past custom and practice, but that which must now embrace present realities for better service delivery.
-The writer is Project Coordinator, Judicial Performance Improvement Project