Tech-ing on a Better Tomorrow
Insight MinLaw goes behind the scenes to uncover stories about how the work we do impacts you.
With the coronavirus upending our daily lives and forever changing consumption habits and business practices, we are often left wondering – “what would a post-COVID-19 Singapore be like?”. That was what Geraldine Kuah, Valerie Chua, Darren Chan and Istyana Putri Ibrahim were tasked to do – to reimagine access to justice in the post-pandemic era.
From left: Geraldine, Valerie, Darren and Istyana
Made up of four officers from the Legal Aid Bureau (LAB) at MinLaw, the team came up with a one-stop platform equipped with self-help tools for victims of family violence as part of the ‘Hackathon for a Better World’, jointly organised by DBS Bank and the Singapore Judiciary.
The result was a webapp called ‘Newsfeed’ that provides timely and relevant legal information, social support and access to legal services to persons facing domestic violence. After a gruelling three-month challenge, the team emerged as the winner for the ‘Most Feasible Solution’ Award for their idea.
Hacking for the Future
A total of 37 teams took part in the hackathon, consisting of participants from diverse fields such as practising lawyers, legal technologists, law students, and staff from DBS and the Singapore Judiciary. Participants were challenged to tackle these problem statements:
● What role can the legal profession play to help everyone in society have better access to justice?
● How can businesses and the legal system collaborate to provide easier access to justice and improve customer experiences?
● How can the justice system become more agile, responsive and flexible to meet the needs of a rapidly evolving society?
Over the course of three months, the ‘slow-burn’ hackathon gave participants the time and room to develop innovative solutions on top of their existing commitments, unlike the usual all-action format that lasts for a few hours or days. Teams also had the opportunity to obtain feedback from relevant stakeholders throughout the research and development process of their prototypes.
The Awards and Prize Presentation Day was held virtually, with Justice Aedit Abdullah as the Guest-of-Honour.
“This hackathon was intense but extremely meaningful for us. We worked closely with victims of family violence to co-create a safe way of empowering them with information and social support. Our webapp reflects what the LAB stands for – helping the vulnerable and less privileged get access to justice,” says Istyana.
Rising Domestic Violence
According to the Singapore Police Force (SPF), 476 reports were filed from April 7 to May 6 last year for offences related to family violence – a 22 per cent increase from the monthly average of 389 for cases of a similar nature before the Circuit Breaker period. With movement restrictions in place, individuals and families were spending more time in close quarters and were likely to experience more stress, potentially leading to violence. In addition, victims of family violence were physically restricted in seeking help for their situations as their abuser was likely to be at home with them.
SPF had received 5,135 reports for family violence offences in 2020 – 1,115 of which were referred to family service centres or family violence specialist centres. To step up efforts to tackle this issue, the Ministry of Social and Family Development recently launched a 24-hour integrated helpline for people to report cases of family violence, and other forms of abuse or neglect.
From left: Istyana, Darren, Valerie and Geraldine having a discussion.
The LAB team were tracking social developments during the Circuit Breaker, and had already developed several LAB-specific responses for their chatbot to cater to the reported rise in family violence. Nonetheless, the team felt that more could be done to help this vulnerable group of people.
Amongst the concerns that family violence victims face, the team found out that many of them were not aware of what they could do, who to reach out to, or where to find a capable or affordable lawyer to assist them in legal matters. As a result, they used the hackathon as an opportunity to put their ideas into action and create a realistic solution. The webapp was born.
Making the ‘Newsfeed’
To aid the development of this webapp, the team interviewed victims of family violence, who offered a glimpse into the dilemmas they were in and the traumas they had experienced.
“Our key discovery was that they wanted to address their basic needs such as safety, housing and social support before considering legal proceedings for their issues. In fact, many of them were worried that if they took action, their safety would be at stake if the perpetrator found out. Foreign wives with children were also haunted by the fear that they would be sent back to their home country without their children,” says Darren.
The interface for ‘Newsfeed’.
Technology can aid access to justice. With more people staying home during the ongoing pandemic, there is a greater reliance on virtual services.
“Once our webapp is fully built and launched, victims of domestic violence can use it to discreetly find a good and affordable lawyer, get links to social services, and guidance on how to handle legal proceedings on their own. They can even use the webapp to record their story and generate a report based on it, so that they can send it to whoever they need to, and save themselves the pain of repeating the story to multiple parties,” shares Valerie.
LegalTech Aiding Legal Aid
For the LAB quartet, their responsibilities as legal officers include providing legal representation to persons of limited means in a wide variety of legal disputes, such as divorce, monetary claims, custody matters, and applications for deputyship. They also offer legal advice to members of the public at LAB’s legal clinic.
The team handles family violence cases on a day-to-day basis. In the course of representing these clients, they could understand the struggles and difficulties that the victim faces in keeping their loved ones safe. This further fuels their passion and determination towards making things better and empowering those in need.
Together with their teammates Rachel Gan and Siow Ying Tze, the six of them form LAB’s LegalTech team that designs and develops tech solutions for the bureau.
From clockwise: Geraldine, Ying Tze, Rachel, Darren, Istyana, Valerie
“Our team launched the Intelligent Legal Assistance Bot (iLAB) in February last year. The chatbot is able to identify your legal issues and provides you with customised legal information to help you address them. It can also generate simple legal documents, tell you where you can get legal advice from a lawyer, and check on your eligibility for legal aid,” shares Rachel, who leads the team.
LegalTech will continue to be a powerful driver to close informational gaps and improve access to justice. As Ying Tze pointed out, one lawyer can only help so many people at any one time, but a tech product can help thousands at the same time.
The team envisions the full version of the webapp platform to be able to serve the needs of all victims of domestic violence, including the elderly. For those not fluent in English or computer literate, they intend to leverage on existing arrangements with government associations so that users can seek proper guidance.
Social workers whom the team had reached out to seek feedback on the prototype also expressed interest and support for the platform.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done. We are currently in the process of securing funding for the project internally. Then, we will be refining it further to make it more user-friendly, and testing it to make sure that it covers the majority of the concerns of family violence survivors. We hope to have this up by 2022/2023,” says Geraldine.
“We hope all this encourages family violence victims who might otherwise suffer in silence to seek help and also take action to help themselves.”
Last updated on 1 March 2021
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