South African lawyer Robert de Rooy understands the power of a simple idea. Seeing the difficulty that illiterate people have in understanding and entering into economically beneficial contractual relationships, Rooy came up with Creative Contracts, a justice innovation whose aim, according to the Cape Town-based commercial attorney is to allow “an illiterate person to understand their contract independently.”
Rooy’s ambitions are catching on. Recently, he came third in 2019 Innovating Justice Awards* organised by The Hague Institute for Innovation of Law (HiiL).
— HiiL (@InnoJustice) February 6, 2019
Justice Hub sat down with Rooy at the Innovating Justice Forum to hear more about the work Creative Contracts is engaged in.
“Often illiterate people are vulnerable. They are poor and don´t have access to resources and contracts are such a fundamental part of our market economy that it´s wrong for illiterate people not be able to participate on their own. They don´t have access to resources, they don´t have ways to advise them on the content of the contracts,” he explained.
“What we do is we create contracts using pictures which is a language which everyone understands so that illiterate people can independently understand their contracts,” he added.
Justice Hub: The kind of contracts that I have seen in my life are incredibly technical. All kinds of very complex language in it. How can you illustrate that?
Firstly, we focus on the contracts that we call “contracts to live”. These are contracts that every person has to sign at one point in their life to simply exist in the market economy. So contracts regarding employment, bank accounts, accommodation, some essential services like medical services, sending your child to school etc.
Justice Hub: How do you show what it is that people are signing up for?
Basically, we are not going to visualize the contract for a merger and acquisition between two hedge funds. But it must be possible, and it is possible, to visualize an employment contract or a rental agreement. And the terms of those rental agreements, even some of the more abstract concepts are quite easy to visualize if you apply your mind to it. Those are the agreements that we focus on and we are yet to come across a clause in a contract that we can´t express in such a way. Because what actually happens when you explain any clause to someone is you actually are talking to them and creating a picture in their mind if you have to communicate what you are trying to say. All we do is that we visualize that in a more concrete way by putting it on paper.
Justice Hub: Have you tested it and where is it working at the moment? Can you give concrete examples?
We did our first contracts in May 2016. They were contracts for temporary farm workers. Those were first introduced to a group of fruit pickers and later on the company expanded it to their pack houses and farms. We have done quite a few farms. Different types of farms. We have developed a contract between a school and parents in economically depressed areas so that the parents can participate actively and more confidently in the relationship with the school because that´s a key indicator of early childhood development and the performance of the child. We have also done medical consents for people participating in medical trials for example. We have done non-disclosure agreements and business to business agreements. We have done quite a few, I am sure I am forgetting to mention some of them.
Justice Hub: There´s a part of me that wonders why isn´t it better to concentrate on the issues of illiteracy rather than just providing this sticking plaster?
That is a very good question. Literacy training is good and it is something that must continue. I don´t see this as a substitute for economically vulnerable people, which from a societal point of view is also a majority of people especially in countries like South Africa and other developing countries, they wake up early in the morning, they get their children ready for school, their commutes is hectic but they eventually get to work. At the end of the day, they come home late. What are we saying to these people? That they have got to find time to participate in an uplifting education program in order for them to bring themselves up to the level where they can participate in the market economy.
What we are saying is the market economy should be able to accommodate these people because otherwise it is a barrier. As the market economy, we should just reach back and help these people along. It is not even difficult, It is using pictures, which have been used for ten thousand years, to communicate ideas. As companies and big corporations, it is the least that we can do to help those people along. We can do it. There is nothing stopping us from doing it. We have got to get it out of our head that a contract can only be legal if it´s text on paper and written in legalese. Literacy training is important but in the meantime, life goes on. The fact is with all the literacy training going on, the actual number of illiterates are still growing. So it shouldn´t be an either or what, it should be both.
Justice Hub: What does justice mean to you?
For me, it is doing what you can to just stop people from suffering. For example, in South Africa inequality is in your face. Every time you stop your car at an intersection there´s going to be 2 or 3 people begging for money and they are not there by choice nor they are lazy or what ever. They are there because they have been systematically defeated by a system. Yes, you can keep giving them money but that´s not going to have the kind of impact that will make a difference. So I feel very privileged to have happened on a simple idea which I believe can probably help make a difference in the lives of many people.
HiiL organizes this annual competition to promote justice innovations. The competition drew over 1000 innovators. From these, a longlist of 400 was compiled, out of which a final 12 were invited to pitch their solution for an urgent access to justice issue at the 9th Innovating Justice Forum at the Peace Palace in The Hague, the Netherlands.