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Wilfried De Wever: Even in the Developed World People Don’t Have Access to Justice

Legal tech initiatives emerge everywhere around the world attempting to improve access to justice and make the work of lawyers easier. There are people and institutions working on top of their effort to support the best of these initiatives and make it count.

At the recent European Legal Hackers Summit 2018, dedicated to legal tech development, have witnessed prominent speeches and interesting projects contributing to the common cause. Wilfried De Wever, who also participated in the event, is one of the people who work hard to pick the best legal tech projects and give them a chance to make an impact. approached Mr. De Wever to get an expert’s perspective on the legal tech market of today, its most significant problems, achievements, and the aspirations of a professional standing at the spearhead of judicial innovation. Mr. De Wever, please tell about your background. What led you to legal tech justice innovation

Wilfried De Wever: I studied law because I was interested in society. I was considering doing anthropology because I was interested in human nature and I like law for that. But I didn’t really think I wanted to become a lawyer or a judge or a minister of justice. But I wanted to understand society. I also studied economics and business because I wanted to know what could be the foundations of laws and rules we have. So I studied economics and business in Berlin, a city where communism was facing capitalism and thus was important to understand the balance between these things.

I started as a consultant for the EU giving the strategic advice on how should we protect our borders, how should we exchange criminal records, how should we deal with migrants — the projects that had legal components, political components and also IT components.

At the time I was working at an IT company and I saw a lot of countries spending a lot of taxpayers’ money on ineffective solutions, and they were repeating themselves. In Europe, for example, many countries built some kind of justice system but they were doing same things over and over.

And I saw that startups and entrepreneurs can do some things faster and more effective. I saw that happening so I got more and more interested in what entrepreneurs can do. And I also have a creative side that I thought I could never fit in the law field or in legal education.

When I was around 30, I set up a non-profit foundation Effectius to look for best practices in justice and how could we make it more effective, cheaper, faster, more convenient for people. We looked around the world for these things. I was interested in an international research, but I didn’t know how to do fundraising, how to be a business person.

I was doing consulting and at the same time I was recording a music album, I was doing so many things. I learned a lot in many spheres: business, NGOs, consulting, music. But none of them really worked for me because I still had a lot to learn. I did set up a business but hadn’t IT co-founders. I was building an IT platform to support the people who wanted to create new businesses, who wanted to create new things. But, well, I missed the IT people in the team. So, there was a lot of learning, cool actions, and some interesting results, but I wasn’t hitting the impact I was looking for.

HiiL organization, the Hague Institute for Innovation of Law, approached me when I was all over the place travelling all the time, being a consultant, doing business things, etc. And they said: “Look, we have this innovating justice community, we’ve been doing this for 6 years, but we want turn it into a business accelerator, add more business and more technology, so we thought that you’re the right person with your background and the things you’ve been working on, such as Effectius etc.”

And I liked that, so I decided to do that. They had an interesting network, resources. We stared validating and working with some startups, we gave awards in the Peace Palace to a few innovators. I had to prove that we could give them interesting guidance, that we can convince people with money, donors, and investors to give us more to do more of this. Over the last 4-5 years with HiiL, I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved, we’ve had more than 2,000 applications for the awards, we’ve invested in more than 50 startups, we’ve had longer programs with the UN, Ministries of Foreign Affairs, cities, we looked at certain ecosystems, we did see a lot of traction around tech, and entrepreneurship, justice, legal. For example, Ukraine has a very interesting ecosystem, and also Kenya, Nigeria, the emerging markets where a lot can be changed with not too much resources. I developed the team, Dmytro Foremnyi became an agent here in Ukraine, we became a team of around 12 people. It’s very cool — the stuff we’ve been doing and that HiiL is still doing. You’ve mentioned the emerging markets in the developing countries. Is there a significant difference between the legal tech and legal innovation communities and initiatives in well-established countries such as the U.S. or European countries and the emerging markets like Ukraine, or the developing countries in Africa, etc?

Wilfried De Wever: I think that in many countries, even in the developed world, people don’t have access to justice. Even in the U.S., there are many people who struggle to pay for lawyers. The justice context is underdeveloped almost everywhere around the world in terms of access to justice, but the difference is that in some places people feel it closer to their own life. In Ukraine, for example, there’s also a war going on, there are people who want change, who want to move forward, who are personally upset by some corruption experiences they’ve had, who are very personally affected by injustice more than in the Netherlands or some other places where you more people have it less close to their personal lives and have less urgency, or less sense of urgency, to do something, but they also have more confidence in that they can actually change something.

I think in places like the U.S., and the U.K., or Western Europe, where you have very established players like law firms and governments with the long history in rule of law, they also have very strong vested interests, so they are protecting their markets and they are also quite good in making sure that there is no innovation, or there is no new disruptive players coming in, so there are more defence mechanisms against innovation, whereas in some of the new up-and-coming markets you can leapfrog some technologies. In Kenya we’re bringing mobile payments and mobile phones, so you can get legal advice on your phone. You can immediately call a lawyer and do a mobile payment, and there are no strong law firms to stop these guys so there’s more room for development. Well, it is understandable that businesses are interested in shrinking any competition. But are the national governments in developed countries reluctant to give way to legal tech innovations? Are they that conservative, so to say?

Wilfried De Wever: Most people with a law background are conservative, whether they are in a law firm or in the government, or in a ministry, or a court, because by their nature they are almost trained to be conservative. They are the guardians of the values and the traditions and the laws, so have to be that way. It’s not only negative, because there is also value in protecting the traditions. Of course, anyone who has a job in justice is afraid of losing it. There is some truth in that. You can be afraid. But if some people or some departments or some organizations don’t evolve they may be replaced. That’s why we really want to work with governments and institutional players so they can evolve and transform to deliver a better quality justice to more people, to develop a great country with wonderful investment climate, to boost the economy instead of retreating, being scared and going defensive. In this regard, what do you think about the premise of the AI as a trending and very much hyped tool for lawyers and other legal professionals? There is also a notion that it is already replacing paralegals and, as it is rapidly developing, it may eventually replace people in even more complicated jobs such as lawyers and maybe even judges. What do you think about such an intervention? What will be its role in the years to come?

Wilfried De Wever: I think it’s very important to bring the technology into the legal sector and into justice. Ukraine is a very interesting country, for example. The people from their Dom Jurista project try to bring AI to automate and predict court decisions. We’re funding some of that. The only reason they are not getting large amounts of money is that their co-founders are not based in Silicon Valley and don’t speak English fluently, but their project is just as interesting. There is a lot of hype around blockchain, AI, and chatbots, but the only way we can learn about it is by working with such, so we’ve invested in chatbots and AI-driven projects, were looking at Cryptonomica, a blockchain-related endeavor.

We’re looking at that by working with such projects and we’re trying to get rid of all the hype and fake stuff, which is quite abundant out there. Many people claim that they are making AI and blockchain solutions, but in fact aren’t doing it or don’t know how to do it, so it’s about finding the real people and learning from them. As for predicting the future — I typically don’t do so and prefer to experiment within today. I do think that big data and analytics can do a lot. In about 10 years or so there will be interesting chatbot advice solutions, and there will be interesting applications of AI in the legal sphere. In your opinion, what are the most prominent trends in legal tech and legal innovation as of today?

Wilfried De Wever: I think one of the most important problems that people should be aware of, and it’s not a trend, but for me it’s more important than any trends, is the climate change. I do think it’s the one planet we have, the one we all have. I hope that that’s the problem that will get on the radar and I hope that it will become a trend and we’ll see more legal hacking around environmental justice, climates protection, water problems and such things. As for the other trends I see there are the ones we all know about: AI, chatbots. I think that chatbots is the one that’s more accessible to people. Lawyers know the language, they know how to structure their argumentation, so it’s a technology that’s easier to adopt than big data or AI. I think chatbots is a good bridge between the legal community and the tech.

I mean, there are many underlying trends. Insecurity is growing and power is becoming more important because inequality is growing as well, so a part of legal tech and justice is now about power and managing power relations. I hope that one of the future trends will be related to the distribution of power and the connection of the many versus the few, because the world is becoming a place with very few powerful individuals, which is difficult for a legal system. Are regulatory sandboxes effective in bringing the knowledge necessary to regulate the tech better, or is it more of a chance for projects to fit themselves into existing law system?

Wilfried De Wever: I’m not an expert in regulatory sandboxes. We’ve been working with some ministries on justise entrepreneurship programs to get more contact with the justice innovators. I’ve been advising the UAE government on their innovation strategy and they are really looking at the law of the future and regulatory sandboxes. I think it’s very important that they exist and that people start having this mindset and understand that they can experiment in the legal field and regulatory field, and we must create some room for that and for the new technologies. That’s a good evolution. The term itself is a bit innovative for some of these guys, it still relatively new and I haven’t seen much research on regulatory sandboxes and the outcomes, so it’s difficult for me to say much about it.

What I think is that it is good to have a mindset that gives room for experimentation within the justice system, within the institutions, an within regulatory frameworks, to allow for faster changes if these changes are meaningful, such as those about protecting our planet. If it is about “let’s all start using AI and blockchain without having other goals”, this is just means to an end. So I do think you have to know which problem you are facing and not just go for the hype.


The perspective offered by Mr. De Wever is very much representative of many specialists involved in legal tech innovation. The hype generated around all-things-blockchain and AI isn’t really healthy, much like any other hype, and draws people’s attention from a whole lot of real issues, whether those related to access to justice, or the acute problems of climate change that may lead to quite grim consequences for the humanity as a whole. It is important that legal tech and justice innovation initiatives have a potential solution for both, if channelled in the right direction.

Hopefully, in the years to come more young and promising lawyers, entrepreneurs, and developers will address the right issues, instead of blindly following the hottest trends and profiting from sheer hype.

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