DRC’s path to smarter justice: a digital transformation journey

November 13, 2023

Archives room at the Court.

Photo: AccLab/UNDP-DRC

In the expansive and diverse landscape of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a quiet revolution is underway—one that is reshaping the very foundations of its justice system. As the digital age continues to transform societies across the globe, the DRC has embarked on an ambitious journey towards what might aptly be called "Smarter Justice." 

In our digital era, where information is exchanged at lightning speed, the concept of justice is evolving as well. It is no longer just about laws, traditional courts, and prisons; it is about leveraging cutting-edge technology to create a more efficient, accessible, and equitable legal system. This transformation is not only streamlining court processes and modernizing penitentiaries, but also redefining the way justice is delivered to the people of the DRC. 

Unlocking Efficiency: How digitalization is redesigning the DRC judicial system

The justice sector in the DRC still relies on an old administration that uses a manual data processing system, an approach that leads to delays and obsolescence of data, thereby affecting the decision-making process and its quality. 

The DRC government and UNDP DRC, with support from the UNDP Global Project on Anti-Corruption for Peaceful and Inclusive Societies (ACPIS) and funding from the governments of Norway and Sweden,  then embarked on a transformative journey towards achieving smarter justice through digitalization, to support justice reform in the country. In 2021, the partnership gave birth to the project ‘BOYE NDE MALAMU, meaning “this is good” in Lingala. 

Through the project, UNDP Tech experts, the DRC government through the Superior Council of the Magistrate (Conseil Superior de la Magistrature or CSM) and the DRC Ministry of Justice co-created several digital tools (software and a mobile application) to improve the management of magistrates' careers, prisoners, and judicial activities based on a human-centered design. These digital tools were deployed on a mid-scale to cover prisons, jurisdictions, and magistrates’ offices spread across Kinshasa, Matadi, Lubumbashi, Goma, and Kananga. 

This ambitious endeavor is not only reshaping the way the legal system operates but also holds the potential to bring about profound positive changes in the lives of its citizens. With reference to the World Bank Doing Business report, which highlights the importance of efficient judicial processes for fostering economic growth, it becomes evident that the DRC recognizes the critical role that a digital transformation plays in improving access to justice, reducing judicial backlog, and promoting transparency. 

Through co-creation and human-centered design, three software systems were developed aiming to address magistrates’ career management (SIGM-Système d'Information de Gestion des Magistrates), courts and prosecutions operations (SIGAJ-Système d'Information de Gestion des Activités Judiciaires) and prison management (SIGE-Système d'Information de Gestion des Ecrous).

User encoding data in the SIGM system.

Photo: AccLab/UNDP-DRC

SIGAJ (Système d'Information de Gestion des Activités Judiciaires) This system for public prosecutors’ offices and courts was created to increase transparency in the management of judicial activities and offered enhanced security guarantees for judicial data. Through this system, judicial files and data would be better compiled, utilized, and analyzed with the aim of helping decision-makers in the judicial administration detect and prevent cases of fraud and corruption, and enhance daily justice operations.

SIGM (Système d'Information de Gestion des Magistrats) This program is a Magistrate Management Information System, which improved the management of the magistrate career track and general justice workforce by delivering information rapidly. The purpose of the system was to create a comprehensive and reliable database of magistrates by gathering and synchronizing information for daily workforce management and transparency on magistrates' careers.

SIGE (Système d'Information de Gestion des Ecrous) This system is a management Information System for Prisons which also has a mobile application. The system offered guarantees and reinforced the security and reliability of prison information files. It enabled rapid verification of prison statistics and helped reduce fraud in the management of inmate files and the granting of parole and provisional release.

To date, over 80 users have been trained in 26 courts in three provinces in the towns of Kinshasa, Matadi and Lubumbashi. Of the 26 courts, four of these are prisons. The plan is to scale up the project to over 42 additional jurisdictions in eight more cities to capacitate a total of 120 users. Doing so enables the interconnectivity of jurisdictions, offices, and prisons to facilitate data exchange for decision-making processes.

Challenges and Opportunities: a closer look at the digital journey

Photo: AccLab/UNDP-DRC

Examining both the challenges that lie ahead and the promising opportunities that this digital journey has presented, one of the foremost challenges that the “BOYE NDE MALAMU” project encountered was the need to establish infrastructure and reliable power sources in the various jurisdictions where the digital tool was to be deployed. To enable the pilot phase to succeed, computers and solar panels had to be donated.

The project also encountered a challenge with data protection and privacy issues with sensitive legal and personal data now becoming digitized. Protecting this information from cyber threats and unauthorized access was a critical challenge that the UNDP Technical experts’ team, with guidance from CSM technical team, had to consider with emphasis on a private leased line for data protection. 

Moreover, some of the magistrates had a resistance to change, as the legal system often operates on deeply ingrained traditional processes. Overcoming this resistance among legal professionals and adapting to new digital workflows is challenging, and it remains a continuous effort as it can be multifaced and at various levels. To address this, UNDP DRC through its Accelerator Lab used a human-centered design, wherein the users of the tools were part of the creation and appropriation process. 

The final challenge was bridging the digital divide among the various court clerks and judges for the success of the digital transformation. Capacity building has proven crucial in addressing this challenge. 

The digitalization of legal information and proceedings can enhance transparency, making justice more accessible to citizens. Digital data collection and analysis can provide valuable insights into the functioning of the justice system, and data-driven decision-making can lead to more informed policy reforms. 

The introduction of the SIGAJ, SIGM and SIGE tools has provided numerous opportunities, such as for enhanced efficiency, with the tools providing a dashboard of information and various key performance indicators to aid in decision-making. Furthermore, it can help reduce opportunities for corruption through transparent digital records and by minimizing physical interactions in the justice process. 

In the case of Colonel Manga Flory, Director of the Military Prison of Ndolo in Kinshasa, who previously had no prisoner database, SIGE was very useful in producing reports on inmate occupancy. The management of the prison adopted the system by not only encoding more than 8,000 prisoner records into the system amounting to 100% digitized records, but also by purchasing more computers for the prison clerks in addition to those donated by UNDP to ensure continuity of the work. SIGE allowed the prison management to produce reports on how many inmates were awaiting trial or inmates that were condemned without going into the physical records.

Photo: AccLab/UNDP-DRC

The Road ahead: what lies beyond Digital Transformation 

President Félix-Antoine Tshisekedi reiterated on 15 July 2023, his “Ultimate call for the rebirth of justice desired and expected by all, a justice that ensures and reassures..." He launched this appeal on the opening of a training session for 2,500 new civil and military magistrates. He went on to state that: “Without justice, there is no development possible. As if to say that the absence of justice is a trivialization of evil. But an effective judicial system is a means of deterrence and peace.” 

As the DRC makes significant strides in its digital transformation journey within the justice sector, it is imperative to consider what awaits beyond this transformative phase. The integration of technology promises improved efficiency, transparency, and accessibility within the legal system, and it opens doors to a multitude of other possibilities. There are opportunities to scale up the project, but it would necessitate the involvement and adoption of government at a high level. 

The DRC's journey toward smarter justice through a digital transformation is undoubtedly marked by challenges, but it is also brimming with opportunities for positive change. As the nation navigates this digital path, a careful balance of addressing hurdles and leveraging the potential benefits will be crucial in ensuring a more efficient, accessible, and equitable justice system for all. This journey represents a significant step towards building a more just and digitally empowered society in the DRC.