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Bridging an Access to Justice Gap with Automation

To support processes and access to justice, BRYTER Modules are being used in the Moria refugee camp on Lesvos, Greece

On Lesvos, organisations struggle with upholding organizational processes and refugees do not have access to legal support. Volunteer lawyers are changing this, organized by the NGO European Lawyers in Lesvos (ELIL). Their effort is now supported and powered with the BRYTER automation platform.

Donate to support!

The European Lawyers in Lesvos gGmbH needs your donation. You can donate on the ELIL website, via PayPal, or per bank transfer to:

European Lawyers in Lesvos gGmbH

IBAN: DE95 1007 0024 0088 9998 00

SWIFT/BIC: DEUTDEDBBER

Payment reference: Donation to European Lawyers in Lesvos gGmbH.

The refugee situation in the Aegean

The influx of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers to European shores in recent years has necessitated the need for, amongst other things, the provision of legal assistance on an urgent and massive scale. Upon arrival in Europe, asylum seekers receive little to no immediate legal assistance prior to having their case evaluated by the relevant authorities.

Due to a lack of legal assistance, genuine asylum seekers, many of whom are fleeing from life-or-death situations in their countries of origin, have unfortunately had their asylum applications rejected. Sadly, in many cases, rejection is a direct effect of a knowledge gap; asylum seekers simply do not understand the criteria and complex processes involved in applying for asylum.

Moria Refugee Camp, Lesvos (c) Cord Brügmann

One example out of many: An Iraqi male went to his asylum hearing in Moria without prior legal consultation. While he stressed that he was an experienced truck driver and willing to work very hard, he did not state grounds for legal asylum. After his claim was denied, he requested legal aid from an ELIL volunteer. During the initial interview it became clear that his chances to be granted asylum in Europe would’ve been good: uninformed as he was, he had withheld the fact that he is a Christian and had fled from persecution because of his faith. He had feared that disclosing this information would be regarded as a weakness. In the appeal stage of his asylum procedure he did not stand a chance. The authorities did not believe that he would have kept such an important fact from them — they suspected he had fabricated a new story.

There are currently more than 13,000 asylum seekers in Moria camp on Lesvos, which has a capacity of 3,100, making it one of the most densely populated places in Europe. Of those stuck in Moria camp, 65% are women and/or minors.

Refugee Camp, Moria, Lesvos (c) Cord Brügmann

Applying for asylum is fundamentally a legal issue

According to Phil Worthington, Managing Director of ELIL, “the whole process that everyone is going through is a legal process; it’s a complex and ever-changing legal process.”

“Unfortunately, there is no legal assistance being readily provided at the first instance stage, and, as a result, the vast majority of asylum seekers go to their assessment interview without ever having spoken to a lawyer; actually, the interview that they have on Lesvos is in 99.99 percent of cases the only interview they will ever have.” “Obviously, from our perspective, this is a rule of law issue; without access to legal assistance, asylum seekers don’t know their rights, they can’t easily understand the process or criteria they are going through; without this information, the process cannot be a fair or robust one, basic human rights cannot be easily defended and the rule of law is at risk.”

“What we as an organization do, fundamentally, the key thing we do is support in the administrative handling of documentation and we provide legal assistance to asylum seekers in relation to their asylum interview. That’s advice and guidance on process, explaining the criteria and the questions they’ll be asked, basically getting people ready and prepared so that they have the best possible chance of putting their case forward in a way that actually reflects their need.”

“We believe that unhindered access to independent legal assistance from a lawyer qualified in asylum law is a fundamental human right.”

Phil Worthington, European Lawyers in Lesvos

The benefits of legal consultation from an early stage are clear: of the cases ELIL have assisted on, 74.5 percent of asylum seekers have been granted international protection, as compared to an average in Greece of 46.1 percent.

Bridging the access to justice gap with pro bono

ELIL is an NGO with a simple yet powerful raison d’être: to provide free, independent legal assistance and administrative support to asylum seekers on Lesvos. So far, 172 lawyers from 18 European countries have contributed over 39,000 volunteer hours to the project and have assisted more than 9,200 people in their applications for asylum. 

The ELIL Office in Moria, Lesvos (c) Cord Brügmann

ELIL recently received the 2019 Pax Christi International Peace Prize for their work in upholding the rule of law, defending human rights and providing meaningful access to justice and legal assistance for refugees on Lesvos.

Phil says that “the idea to establish ELIL started in 2016, during the height of the ‘refugee crisis’, which was not so much a refugee crisis, but a situation in which the EU governments felt too overwhelmed to adequately respond.”

In a unique effort, networks of professional aid organizations and volunteer initiatives banded together to provide shelter, water, food, and hygiene. Additionally, electricity for smartphones was provided for up to 3,000 people arriving daily. Smartphones were — and are — the main lifeline for many refugees and migrants, whose families are scattered all over the world. However, the smartphones also served as a disseminator of fake news about flight and asylum.

After the agreement between the EU and Turkey came into effect late March 2016, the situation changed. People seeking refuge — or just a better life in Europe — were now stuck after arriving at the hotspots. Legal advice, process management and good administration became crucial as people could no longer leave the islands and instead had to apply for asylum in the camps.

In February 2016, lawyers’ organizations from all over the EU agreed to fund a short-term pro bono project through which asylum lawyers from EU member countries could spend a minimum of 3 weeks in Moria camp on Lesvos, demonstrating support for — and solidarity with — their Greek colleagues.

The ELIL volunteers with Phil Worthington and Cord Brügmann (c) Cord Brügmann

The project, under the umbrella of the German Bar Association (Deutscher Anwaltverein, DAV) and the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE), quickly became indispensable after having secured unhindered access to Moria camp through a memorandum of understanding with the Greek government. Initially planned only for a year, the project’s success led to the formation of an NGO in late 2017, granting organizational stability.

The team at ELIL are doing everything within their power to provide legal services to as many asylum seekers as possible, however, resources are limited and strained. Until recently, the sheer number of arrivals on Lesvos meant that legal consultation could not be provided to all those who needed it. The manual work involved with processing asylum applications was time consuming and limited the impact ELIL could have on Lesvos.

Support by European volunteer lawyers

In 2016, the DAV connected the ELIL project to legal tech designers. It was their assistance that allowed the people behind the project to think big and take advantage of the facts that:

1. there is a common asylum law system in the EU,

2. the first instance stage is highly standardized,

3. almost all refugees and migrants have smartphones.

The hypothesis was that, through applying technological solutions, the effectiveness of consultations and the number of applicants could be increased. The team at ELIL then started to explore the legal tech space for innovative case management solutions.

Beforehand, the ELIL team had been registering cases using pen and paper, which resulted in rooms stacked full of files. There was a critical need “for a simple, logical and consistent process,” Phil says, “It needed to be seamless for lawyers to arrive, understand what was going on, pick up files, pick up cases, run with them for a month, and them hand them over … we needed to develop a mechanism, to be agile and flexible in this ever-changing situation.”

Leveraging BRYTER’s no-code platform to streamline processes

Using BRYTER’s no-code decision automation platform, teams at BRYTER and ELIL worked together to develop a seamless tool to help the ELIL team register cases more efficiently, provide legal assistance more effectively, as well as closely monitor and oversee the assistance given. BRYTER is donating both the platform and assistance in using and training on the platform.

The initial solution developed with BRYTER streamlines the registration process, helps eliminate the potential for human error, and frees up more lawyer hours for more individualized and complex consultation later in the asylum application process.

“At the moment, we use the BRYTER platform for the electronic registration of all of our cases,” Phil explains, “each case we take on, we go through a registration process which varies from about 20 questions to about 60 questions. This all used to be done on paper, and then somebody would actually type it up into a kind of giant spreadsheet. Straight away you can see the inefficiencies … so this is all now done through the BRYTER platform.”

Phil Worthington (right) and a volunteer (c) Cord Brügmann

“And, what we have seen is that it has increased speed, efficiency and accuracy. It’s all done now with the person sitting in front of them, through the phone, and goes straight into the database. Obviously, this is really valuable for data protection and confidentiality because there is no paper and its really helped transform the way we do this initial part of the process.”

“The thing that struck me most when I started using BRYTER was how easy it was to use … I got it done (the application) in a couple of hours because the flow was so logical. Critically, as well, it’s really easy to add new questions that may come up when we need to adapt the registration form, whereas before we had to change it and reprint all the forms and go through this laborious process.”

“The most interesting thing is what we can and hopefully will be developing in the future.”

Next steps in the ELIL and BRYTER collaboration

With the initial solution in place, plans are underway to use the BRYTER platform to automate further steps in the process. Three key stages for the collaboration are envisioned. Stage 1 — the collection of all case data using BRYTER — is already in place.

The next two stages, according to Phil, “could make a fundamental transformation of the work we do, even beyond what has been achieved so far.”

Stage 2: An internal tool for qualitative feedback

This tool would enable the case lawyer to add additional information pertinent to each individual case, gathered during the preparation interview, which could then be saved in connection with the original case file.

“When a lawyer does a preparation interview, they would be required to complete a decision tree about what happened, how the preparation went and then that information would flow through on to the file as well, so it would be another mechanism of information about the case we can lodge with the evaluation,” Phil explains.

Stage 3: using BRYTER in an outward facing way.

The first two stages described are managed by the lawyer assigned to the case. The asylum seeker does not interact with any application, but instead provides information which is then recorded using the BRYTER platform by the case lawyer.

Phil believes “the potential quantum leap could be using it externally as well, so enabling asylum seekers to access and use the tools we create using BRYTER in a number of different ways. First of all, for them to be able to provide feedback on the service that they have experienced. This is something that is remarkably difficult to do; we have found collecting information about legal assistance extremely difficult to do … they would always say that everything was perfect — which is great, but I knew was not true.”

Aside from collecting anonymized feedback on the legal service they received, Phil believes the BRYTER platform can be used to provide information.

“Most people access information through their smartphone … I am envisaging a situation whereby we have registered somebody and their preparation with us is in two weeks, so we say to them ‘please access this tool and complete it before your preparation’, and through the tool we would actually be able to do quite a lot of the provision of assistance before the preparation interview.

It would be a way of asking some questions about the persons case that they would respond to, and then it would provide tailored information to them accordingly, about the basic procedure they are going through, information relevant to their particular case, and at the same time, feed that information to our lawyers so that they have that information before the preparation. Because actually, for each preparation we do, for each meeting we do, it takes two hours, and the first half an hour is always the same, we tell people the basic criteria, the procedure, we collect information, so it’s kind of a half hour waste because it’s done the same way every time.

If there is a way of short-circuiting that process, and BRYTER is I think that mechanism, then it would mean that we go straight into the key elements of the case because we would already know them and the asylum seeker would have already been informed about it and would be ready with the relevant information. So, rather than starting from zero with the most basic questions, we would have already skipped 25% or more into the actual  substance of the case, and when you extrapolate that out across 5000 cases, each of which is 2 or 3 hours minimum, it’s lots and lots of time that is saved and could increase our productivity.”

And It is not just those on Lesvos who will benefit, Phil explains, “with legal tech it will be easier to scale the project and offer legal assistance in other hotspots in Greece and beyond.”

Team BRYTER supporting sur place

The teams at BRYTER and ELIL are actively working together on implementing stages 2 and 3 of the project’s roadmap. We will share an update on progress made in the following months.

A team of BRYTER Customer Success Managers will travel to Lesvos in January 2020 to support the administration through coaching and training on the automation platform and also to better understand the needs of users sur place.

Michael Grupp, CEO of BRYTER, sums up: “We have known Cord and subsequently Phil for quite some time now. When we first heard about the ELIL project it was clear that we would support their cause in any way possible. Bringing in the automation power of BRYTER to further leverage what the volunteers of ELIL are already doing seemed like the obvious thing to do. We are open to bring technology to further projects with a humanitarian cause.”

Donate to support!

The European Lawyers in Lesvos gGmbH needs your donation. You can donate on the ELIL website, via PayPal, or per bank transfer to:

European Lawyers in Lesvos gGmbH

IBAN: DE95 1007 0024 0088 9998 00

SWIFT/BIC: DEUTDEDBBER

Payment reference: Donation to European Lawyers in Lesvos gGmbH.

BRYTER supports this cause through this year’s Christmas donations.