In the recent national budget read by newly appointed State Minister for Planning Amos Lugolobi, about Shs376.9 billion has been allocated to the Judiciary arm of government. Out of this, Shs18.2 billion has been earmarked for implementing the Electronic Court Case Management Information System and the Prosecution Case Management Information System.
These deliberate efforts to integrate the use of Information Communication Technology (ICT) in the delivery of justice indicates the government is embracing the digital times in its bid to improve efficiency in the management of legal processes.
In Uganda, many startups seek legal services only when they are caught between a rock and a hard place. This is due to a myriad of reasons including but not limited to expensive legal fees and limited access to information that would otherwise enable startups to remain on the right side of the law.
Take for instance Bernardette Nalika who has been running a menstrual health startup since 2018. She operated the businesses under what she believed to be the perfect company name until she took the step of registering the business. At the Uganda Registration Services Bureau (URSB), she discovered with alarm that the name cannot be registered legally because of certain clauses in the law that govern company names. Already a brand she had invested heavily into, Nalika sought the help of The Innovation Village’s Legal Tech Lab that placed her in the able hands of Daraja Law, a firm that is experienced in dealing with issues like Nalika’s. After a lot of negotiation, Nalika had to settle for a different name for her business.
It is avoidable situations like these that inspired the establishment of the Legal Tech Lab. The Lab aims to help startups, if not prevent, then solve legal challenges such as these.
Hellen Mukasa, a lawyer well-seasoned by eight years spent serving the legal needs of the corporate world sits at the centre of this Lab. She began her career as a lawyer dealing with high-end clients in the business world who sought legal services. The expenses incurred in acquiring legal services, the lack of knowledge about laws governing businesses makes startups prone to having legal problems that result in hefty legal sums. At that point, it became Mukasa’s mission to make legal information accessible to young businesses.
Her passion for young businesses stems from witnessing the enthusiasm they have towards changing the world. She believes that being armed with legal information would change their course positively and go a long way in growing their businesses.
A Fellow of the Hague Institute for Innovations of Law class of 2017, Mukasa shares her views on what The Innovation Village is doing. She says, “With leadership comes great responsibility and The Innovation Village leads in the innovation space. For that reason, it is incumbent on it to participate in advocacy for a supportive regulatory framework and be exemplary in steering the ecosystem to adhering to corporate governance Principles and operate in conformity with the Law.”
Beginning with a mindset change, Mukasa wants to shift legal services from the perspective of a curative service to a preventive service.
To achieve this, the Legal Tech Lab provides free legal consultation to startups in The Innovation Village ecosystem.
“When you embrace legal knowledge, you are armed with a tool to use as a springboard to gain a competitive edge. If you are the only formally registered startup bidding with other informal businesses, obviously a client will trust you more. In the search for funding, investors are attracted to companies that have documents that portray transparency. Even at a personal level, going through legal processes to register builds confidence as one is not intimidated by legal terms or the request for something like a term sheet,” Mukasa explains.
The legal consultation given to startups rotates around one of the biggest issues in the startup world; formalisation of businesses. Many entrepreneurs shy away from registering businesses because of fear of imagined costs incurred in the legal processes and costs after appearing on the taxation radar. While they set out to save money, they end up losing out on great opportunities for markets that prefer working with formal businesses.
To demystify the process of formalizing businesses, the Legal Tech Lab partners with institutions like URSB and Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) to provide information about intellectual property protection and tax compliance respectively. When the startups have legal issues, the Lab works in partnership with law firms in the regions where The Innovation Village has presence.
In Kampala, Daraja Law serves the startups in the central region and Jinja, Kaganzi and Advocates serve the western region, while Odong & Co Advocates serve the northern region.
This is not the only work that the Lab is doing. As an ecosystem builder, it is leading conversations that are long overdue regarding businesses and legal matters.
Recently, following the nationwide consultative meetings with startups, the Legal Tech Lab in partnership with Private Sector Foundation Uganda (PSFU) engaged the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Trade, Ministry of ICT and the other stakeholders on the relevance of a National Startup Act. During the convention, the parties concluded that a national startup act would help to define, integrate and regulate the various players in the ecosystem which would eventually encourage innovation.
With every industry and profession already on the digital track, Mukasa says that the Legal Tech Lab has technological innovation, high on the agenda.
“Despite the widespread availability of high-speed Internet and smartphones, there are millions of people for whom legal services are, at least seemingly, unattainable, inaccessible, and just plain daunting. There is a lot that innovation can do to increase access to legal services and justice as a whole,” Mukasa says.
To get this work started, the Legal Tech Lab has been on the search for people innovating around issues within the legal sector. While innovators are free to share their big ideas, there is a plan to equip them with knowledge about building tech-based solutions for the sector.
With 22 innovators responding to the call and 80 per cent of them being at the ideation stage, knowledge will be imparted in collaboration with other departments such as Tech and Data, and Communications and Marketing so as to give well-rounded support to the innovators.
In its first year, the Lab has made progress in Mukasa’s opinion. It has been able to support approximately 323 startups in the ecosystem with free legal consultation.
Besides this, the Legal Tech Lab will continue to harness useful resources from the ecosystem by working with entrepreneurs to provide them with mentors, strategic partners, investors and concept testing platforms to launch their Legal Tech ideas.
In the pipeline are many opportunities for entrepreneurs like the upcoming Annual Legal Tech event that will be a platform to showcase legal innovations and pitch them to Corporate entities, Legal Fraternity, Judiciary and those who seek justice in the Courts of Law.
Mukasa believes that by bridging the gap between the tech and legal industries, innovations that serve both legal professionals and consumers alike can finally spring up.