Pandemic as a springboard for judicial reforms with a human touch

Bani Singh/Eshwar Agarwal/MP Ram Mohan | Updated on June 23, 2020

Innovative tech solutions like online courts provide an opportunity to explore low-cost solutions that remove the need for extensive infrastructure and address systemic inefficiencies

Kalawati (name changed), a housemaid we met at the district urban court in Ahmedabad, was thrown out of her own house, and denied her share in the property. When mediation failed, she filed a case. This was six years ago. Having exhausted her savings and a good part of her life on the case, Kalawati was still hopeful. She had strong faith in the judiciary and believed justice was imminent.

Kalawati’s ordeal is not a unique or chance occurrence. Courts nationwide are buckling under the massive number of pending cases. The National Judicial Data Grid tells us around 46 lakh cases in high courts and 3.19 crore cases in lower courts are still unresolved as of March 2020. In the interviews conducted with litigants earlier this year at rural and urban courts in Ahmedabad, many narrated tribulations similar to those of Kalawati. And for some, cases had been handed down generations.

Lengthy process

Litigants had accepted that justice in India is a lengthy and complex process with unending cycles of monthly court visits. The litigants admitted that the courts were their last resort rather than a readily accessible machinery. In fact, over 60 per cent of the respondents surveyed is pursuing the same case for over five years, and nearly 20 per cent of them had been visiting the court for over 10 years.

To the economically weaker population, the cumulation of court fees, lawyers’ fees and transportation costs imposes a significant financial burden. To make matters worse, there is also a hidden opportunity cost of the daily wage for every court appearance. Without clarity about the time a visit will take, litigants end up waiting the whole day. In fact, several litigants we had interviewed in the morning were still waiting at the same spot, mainly in the pavements, several hours later. When asked, they expressed their unease at the prospect of even entering the building without their lawyer.

This represents a major gap between the common man and the legal system. A majority of the litigants depend on their lawyers and had minimal understanding of their case status. For them, it was simply about showing up, waiting and signing documents handed by the lawyers. As the common man becomes simply a passive observer in his own pursuit of justice, there is as much at stake for the judiciary’s reputation, as for the litigants’ access to efficient delivery of justice.

Impact of the pandemic

With the cost of accessing justice already heavily skewed against the economically weaker sections, the Covid pandemic has aggravated the situation. The strict lockdown forced courts to close or operate with limited capacity, prioritising urgent cases only. As and when the lockdown lifts, the backlogs will drive down disposal rates and delay justice. Additionally, many may not be able to attend courts, due to livelihood issues, fear of infection and restrictions on movement.

While these may be expected inefficiencies given the pandemic, the role of the judiciary becomes even more important in uncertain times. As crisis calls for decisive action, it is crucial that courts act as safe spaces for logical revaluations of decisions made without careful consideration. With the pandemic having already impacted the economy and the social well-being of citizens, a crippled judiciary adds social tensions.

An emerging solution?

On a brighter note, the pandemic has pushed the judicial system to look for innovative technological solutions. Online courts provide an opportunity to explore low-cost solutions that remove the need for extensive infrastructure and address systemic inefficiencies. This would significantly reduce the time spent on travelling, waiting and other internal court processes. This has also sparked discussions around new-age technologies like artificial intelligence to help litigants get a realistic indication of the fate of their case.

While these steps are in the right direction, technological solutions are still ridden with problems in India. Technological solutions are typically biased in favour of the rich. People like Kalawati cannot be expected to be as adept at using technology. In fact, rapid digitalisation without support systems in place may further alienate them from the judicial system.

This problem needs to be addressed with a human touch by understanding the requirements of each stakeholder. Establishment of online courts needs to be accompanied by building ICT infrastructure, creating digital literacy and establishing alternative provisions. A technology audit particularly at the lower courts should be carried out.

The pandemic crisis can be used as a springboard for bringing in technological solutions in conjunction with the long due reforms. However, any change needs to be rooted in the realities of the Indian society, keeping in mind Kalawati and the millions like her.

The writers are associated with IIM Ahmedabad. Views are personal

Published on June 23, 2020

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