Opinion

Open courts, open data: Digitisation of India’s legal system needs ramping up

Eshwar Agarwal/MP Ram Mohan | Updated on August 16, 2020 Published on August 16, 2020

With Indian court websites showing only individual cases’ details, there is no mechanism for a system-level examination of the judiciary. We need machine-readable granular data for big-picture analysis

The digitisation of Indian courts has received a major thrust due to the Covid-19 social distancing restrictions. The judiciary, led by the Supreme Court and the High Courts, have adopted e-filing for urgent matters and conducted frequent hearings over video conferencing.

Courts in a democracy function in an ‘open judicial system’. In India, the public’s right to access law and legal proceedings is thus fundamental. Usually, the common man experiences justice delivery as a passive observer, and the pandemic is only set to aggravate the situation. We must seriously consider the effect of reduced physical interaction on trust and openness in the judicial system.

The digitisation of courts over the last decade has been singularly focussed on individual litigants, with court websites designed to allow access to individual cases. There is no mechanism for a system-level examination of the judiciary. The small CAPTCHA encountered on the websites of the Supreme Court and multiple High Courts provides a glimpse of some of the barriers faced. As researchers, we have frequently spent time typing in the CAPTCHAs repeatedly to reach one case, and then manually aggregating the information.

There is no easy path for researchers to move from the text analysis of cases to studying trends and patterns such as how hearings are clustered or how surges in classes of cases. The judicial system is complex and not birthed in perfection. It has to be optimised over decades, just like engineers who release better versions of phones periodically. However, improvements are only possible if we have a standard base model, quantifiable in numbers. This sadly is not the case for India.

Data gaps

Our review of Indian court websites showed that though some courts provided aggregated statistics, these were meant to be read as-is and were not in a machine-processable format. Further, data points from the wider judiciary such as those pertaining to the alternate dispute resolution, court-staffing and vacancies could not be found. Moreover, the judicial data is spread across more than 20 websites, with each one having a different user interface, method of categorisation of appeals, and the number of data points required to access a case status or the judgment.

In the absence of machine-readable granular data, it is not possible for researchers and case publishers to take either a big-picture or a district-by-district view of the system. Like the blind mice, we are grappling with small parts and problems.

Public attention is focussed on an occasional court judgment such as the acquittal in some famous criminal case, political brownie points being scored in courts or closure of some long-drawn pending case, etc, even though over 3.5 crore cases are pending in the high courts and below, which receive much less attention both in terms of public acknowledgement and solution-finding.

Open data publishing

In this, it is not that we lack imagination. The National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy (NDSAP), 2012, lays down clear guidelines on the treatment of public data. The government’s open data platform (data.gov.in) has had some judicial data released by the Ministry of Justice and Law; however, it could do with more frequent updates and improvement in the variety and manner of access. The National Judicial Data Grid is another step in this direction. It gives aggregated statistics at the taluka, district and high-court level. However, access to case-level data is one at a time and protected through CAPTCHA to prevent direct machine access.

A number of standards by organisations such as W3C and World Bank can help us understand how data should be published online. According to W3C, providers must give bulk data which is updated regularly (in real-time, if possible) in a machine-processable format. The data must be accompanied by its metadata and an option for giving feedback. APIs must be provided to facilitate direct download of entire datasets, filtered by the desired parameters. The World Bank regards any data as truly open if it allows for further processing and dissemination. Thus, data in the form of standalone documents, which have to be read as-is, can’t be regarded as open.

With the E-Courts Mission Mode Project, some first steps can be immediately taken. Bulk download of the granular data collected can be enabled right away. APIs can be made public, so that automated programmes can download the required data in standardised machine-processable formats. The benefits of an open data policy will be accrued to multiple stakeholders, including the judiciary, the government and the public. It enhances democracy, and the judiciary can leverage the opportunity to increase the trust and faith reposed in it.

The writers are associated with IIM-A. Views are personal

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Published on August 16, 2020
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