A quick search of Ethiopian legal applications on Google Play produces a handful of applications. Negari, which has 27K users, is one platform that comes on top of the search results.
Owned by attorney Liku Worku, the application provides access to effective federal laws, cassation decisions, and other relevant legal materials.
Liku is also the one behind the website Abyssinia Law, a platform popular among those who practice the profession. Launched with the major aim of making the law accessible, Abyssinia Law offers free access to Ethiopian laws and legal articles. In addition, it has a lawyers’ directory where users can find 3500 lawyers along with their details and contact.
Ethiopian law is another legal application on Google Play. Owned by Abbas Mohamed, also an attorney, it has more than a thousand downloads. The app was released in 2020 and provides a gateway to legal information in Ethiopia.
“We provide anything that helps people navigate the Ethiopian justice system,” said Abbas.
Materials on the Ethiopian legal system, such as laws, research, blogs, and court cases, are found in the app. The content is also organized by subject and categories for easy access.
Besides the two platforms, there are three dozen apps dedicated to legal issues in Ethiopia. However, they all serve the same purpose.
At the current stage, all legal platforms in Ethiopia are dedicated to providing legal content such as blogs, consolidated laws, court decisions, and legal forms through apps, websites, and social media channels. In short, they serve as information portals.
This is Ethiopia’s status in the emerging field of legal tech, a term that refers to the use of new technologies to offer legal services.
Despite the growth of the digital economy in Ethiopia and its impact on many professions, legal services remain static. Some sectors, like ride-hailing, fintech, and e-commerce, are leapfrogging, while the nation is also seeing promising prospects in healthtech, edtech, and agritech. But, the same can not be said for legal tech.
In other parts of the world, even the latest technological developments such as AI and blockchain are being used to deploy legal services in better and more effective ways. In fact, the legaltech economy is projected to reach 25 billion dollars by 2025.
Innovative Legal Services
Legaltech encompasses solutions that make access to justice easier for the public, sometimes without even involving a lawyer.
From enabler technologies used to digitize legal data to commoditized legal solutions for litigation and case analysis, and softwares for back office work, technology has become part of the justice system worldwide.
Moreover, legal tech startups are emerging everywhere, offering solutions such as document drafting platforms and smart contacts, electronic legal marketplaces, online dispute resolution systems, and even legal artificial intelligence systems, where users can chat with a bot lawyer.
The United Nations estimates that around four billion people worldwide are excluded from the rule of law. Legal startups aim to tap into this enormous opportunity.
The Conventional Way of Doing Legal Practice in Ethiopia
Abbas states that the legal profession in Ethiopia is culturally conservative, traditional, and heavily paper-based. Additionally, it relies on face-to-face meetings, which he argues is behind the low adoption of legal technology in the profession.
Another lawyer, Yehulashet Tamiru, supports this notion and states, “Legaltech has not developed much because considerable people in the legal sector are senior professionals that are conservative and hesitant to adopt new technology.”
On the client side, Yehulashet adds that people hire lawyers based on recommendations and reputations, and the clients trusting a lawyer they found on the internet is unlikely.
“Access to the internet, willingness, and reliability issues are also hurdles to using legal technology among users, ” Yehulashet added.
While technology adoption is a big factor, legal technology also has another opponent in Ethiopia: the Ministry of Justice.
Liku recalls that when he was compiling laws for his platforms, he was challenged by the Ministry of Justice, claiming it was their mandate to consolidate laws.
“Ethiopian law has a strong implication prohibiting commoditized attorney services,” Liku added.
Should Justice Be commodified?
The Ethiopian justice system does not like the idea of commodification of legal services, which means treating legal services as a commodity.
Commodification refers to the transformation of immaterial social relationships into commercial relationships that often utilize the ideologies of a market-driven economy.
As evidenced by the disruptive nature of technology and experience in other sectors, the mass adoption of legaltech in Ethiopia could lead to the commoditization of legal services.
Legal platforms make legal services accessible to the public, but they also offer similar types of services. When multiple law firms and multiple lawyers can perform the same legal work equally well, there is commoditization, and some believe this could lead to these platforms competing as businesses.
“In Ethiopia, it has been a point of contention whether commercializing legal services by adding value is possible,” he added.
Liku explains that Ethiopian law had a long stand belief that commercializing attorney services conflicts with the notion that lawyers are supposed to bring justice through their profession and not turn their professions into a business by adding value.
Liku says even the simplest attempt to compile laws has met with resistance in the past. He was not the only one who ran into a problem because of this.
Hello Tebeka was a call center-based legal consultancy service, developed by Belcash Technology Solutions Plc and operated from 2015-2017.
The call center provided comprehensive telephone consultations, including advice about various legal issues, for both the public and private sectors for six birr a minute. Two lawyers were stationed in the office full time, while calls were also transferred to 50 lawyers all over the country.
One of the reasons for the closure of Hello Tebeka was that it was not lawful to advertise attorney services in the media; therefore, the business slowly died because it could not reach the border society.
Change of Direction?
Around a year ago, Ethiopia revised its Federal Advocacy Service proclamation. The law that governs the profession and practice of 3500 licensed attorneys in Ethiopia has introduced many changes.
While the law still does not recognize lawyers as businesses operating for profit, for Yehualshet, it made a significant step as it recognized law firms for the first time and allowed their establishment as limited liability partnerships (LLP), an alternative corporate business form.
Yehulashet argues that the new law has made a policy shift and created an enabling environment for legaltech in Ethiopia.
Another new development is the Electronic Transaction Proclamation, which the parliament passed in 2020. The law governing the sale of goods and services also provides a legal framework for transferring digital information or electronic documents via the internet. The proclamation gives legal recognition to signatures, seals, and information generated in an electronic form.
It is also to be recalled that Document Authentications & Registration Agency launched a service that allows users to register and request power of attorney and authentication of documents online without their physical presence.
In addition, the Federal Supreme Court in partnership with USAID’s Feteh (Justice) Activity has been implementing ICT reforms since 2019.
Feteh supported the development, deployment, testing, piloting, and roll-out of an automated Case Management Information System and Digital Records & Archive Information System for the Federal Courts.
However, there are still many challenges for tech-based legal services to take off in Ethiopia. Globally, legal services are carried out within regulatory frameworks in many countries worldwide as legaltech platforms require special conditions to be observed to ensure standards and ethical conduct.
Sensitive yet critical issues like accountability, confidentiality, and evidence are very difficult to regulate in such settings.
Though the Federal Advocacy Service proclamation allows for law firm establishment, it states nothing about tech-based legal services. The sector is unregulated under Ethiopian law.
However, all of the stakeholders Shega interviewed have the view that legaltech has a bright future in Ethiopia. They believe that the law has to align itself with technology and re-shape the legal services landscape.
They argue that, as a profession, it has to cope with the wave of change in other professions; otherwise, it would be difficult to keep pace with the current digital transformation.
The implications of legal tech in Ethiopia, even at this stage, could be immense. Companies can sign up their employees on legal educational platforms to inform their employees on issues like tax laws.
Citizens could easily access justice through lawyer matching platforms, where they can hire a lawyer or receive legal advice with the click of a button.
Meanwhile, on the state side, such technology can be used to revolutionize court operations, creating convenience such as where users can file cases at their homes.