In India, all citizens are guaranteed free legal aid by the Constitution. Yet despite this promise, many people cannot access the legal services they need, due to long delays in case resolution, spiralling costs of litigation, and complex procedures that inhibit access. The latest results from the National Judicial Data Grid (the official monitor of the Indian courts system set up by the Ministry of Law & Justice, Government of India in 2013-2014) shows that around 53 percent of civil and criminal cases filed in Indian courts remain unresolved for more than 2 years. More than 16 percent have been pending for between 5 and 10 years, and more than 8 percent have been pending for more than 10 years.
However, the government is now implementing technological solutions to remove these structural and institutional barriers, and change the way it delivers legal services. It recently introduced various programs to facilitate digitization of the legal system. This move suggests that the government acknowledges the existing infrastructure cannot meet the needs of India’s people. It also raises questions regarding the long-term viability of these new programs.
Turning to technology
Approximately 500,000 students enroll in legal studies and 70,000 graduates join the legal profession in India each year, but very few undertake legal aid work. The Constitutional protection has not translated into commitments from those in the legal profession, mainly due to the limited incentives for professionals to offer these services and the nascent pro bono legal culture. This institutional and professional lethargy suggests the need for a creative approach that can provide affordable, accessible, and transparent alternatives that put those in need of legal aid first.
With the number of internet users in India shooting up by 11.34 percent between 2016 and 2017, and projected to grow to 500 million users by June 2018, there is growing appetite to replace offline services with digital alternatives. Indian law firms are adept at using document automation systems like Docassemble to generate fillable forms based on structured questionnaires and prepare standard legal documents. Indian lawyers use online marketplaces like LawRato and MyAdvo to attract new clients. However, private enterprise has not tapped the market for legal aid.
Internationally, legal advice has been digitized through technologies like artificial intelligence-enabled chat bots such as DoNotPay to help clients navigate legal queries, cloud-based customer and practice management software like Clio, and online dispute resolution platforms like Rechtwijzer. These platforms aim to address asymmetric legal knowledge by providing credible legal information, reduce the costs of dispute resolution, and foster efficiency in the delivery of legal services.
In 2010, the Indian government attempted to bridge the gap by initiating the E-Courts project to establish technology-enabled courts, promote automation of case management processes and provide online systems for payment of fees in lower courts. The objective was to reduce delays by increasing transparency for litigants and providing access to legal databases to judges.
To supplement this effort, three new initiatives began last year. The Nyaya Mitra program, like the E-Courts program, targets judges and court administrators. In this project, retired judicial or executive officers with legal experience work as “friends of the law,” or Nyaya Mitras. They provide legal assistance to resolve cases that have been pending for more than ten years, as identified from the National Judicial Data Grid across select districts of India.
Two other programs are intended to provide litigants with better access to expert lawyers. Pro bono Legal Services is a web-based platform where lawyers can register to handle pro bono matters. The idea is to plug the information gap by creating an organised database of such lawyers and more importantly, reward pro-bono work by giving those who provide such services priority in appointments to judicial roles. The Tele Law portal connects lawyers with subject matter expertise with clients from marginalized social sectors through video conferencing facilities at centers set up by state legal services authorities. Village-level entrepreneurs operate these facilities and paralegal volunteers schedule and coordinate lawyer-client meetings.
A preliminary report card
While it is too early to judge the long-term effectiveness of these initiatives, it is possible to analyze the trajectory of their initial impact. Implementation has been a slow-moving, staggered process, with perception challenges among various user groups.
Phase 1 of the E-Courts project had an allocated budget of Rs. 9.35 billion, but only around Rs. 6.4 billion was spent by legal services authorities, despite the lack of restrictions on utilization of funds. This may be due to authorities’ lack of confidence in information technology services.
The Pro Bono Legal Services platform has seen limited uptake from lawyers; only 224 had registered on the platform as of February 2018. This suggests that technology alone is not sufficient. A program must also be sufficiently remunerative and offer a career payoff. Officially, Tele Law is functional across 1800 panchayats (local self-governance units at village or town levels) in 11 Indian states, with 13,947 cases registered and legal advice provided in 10,703 cases. However, there is no measurement of—or independent checks on—the quality, effectiveness, or appropriateness of that legal advice.
Nyaya Mitra has officially launched in 227 districts, including 27 from North East and Jammu and Kashmir, and 200 from the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Odisha, Gujarat, and West Bengal. However, only 15 Nyaya Mitras were engaged in 2017, and no official update has been provided on these numbers since.
A 2014 study by the New Delhi-based National Council of Applied Economic Research offers valuable insights on the problem of limited uptake of technology with judicial officers. Stumbling blocks include: the inability to customize user reports, the fact that software isn’t available in local languages, users’ frustration with working simultaneously with parallel manual and computerized systems, software design flaws, low data security, and limited and ineffective software upgrades.
The acute short supply of effective legal aid combined with very high demand means that many deserving litigants are denied legal aid. This is not due to lack of resources, but a lack of cohesive planning to build an architecture around the products to ensure their use among stakeholders. The consequences of the failure of these projects include a greater burden and demand on resources than the already overburdened judiciary can handle, as well as further exclusion among those for whom technology can mean overcoming costs, lack of information, and other barriers to justice.
Ultimately, if the Indian government is serious about reforming the legal aid apparatus, it will need buy-in on new technologies from all stakeholders: legal services authorities, lawyers, judges, and litigants, who are the critical constituency. To thrive, any platform aiming to ease the administrative burdens of the judiciary needs a close-knit community of active users (state and non-state) and must be able to handle high user volumes. Most importantly, these projects must address litigants’ potential lack of trust in technology due to unfamiliarity, privacy concerns, and fear of misuse. Until the government considers these realities, and views the delivery of legal aid as more than just a technology solution, the aim to provide all Indians with adequate legal services will remain unrealized.