India And The Crying Need For Transformation In Its Legal Industry

In this piece, the author makes a case for the immediate and pressing need for transformation in the Indian legal system. Steps for increasing the efficiency of the courts are enumerated, keeping in mind the diverse interests of various stakeholders.

It would be banal to say that the world is going through an unprecedented crisis, but as a lawyer and legal-tech entrepreneur, I would be remiss in not mentioning it as I begin.

Legal, tax and compliance is a space which has been largely untouched by the vicissitudes of progress and technology driven disruption.

Bill Gates once famously quipped that if the auto industry had grown at the same pace that the computer industry had, we would all be “driving $25 cars that got 1,000 miles to the gallon.”

To borrow the metaphor, if the legal industry had kept pace with the advancements in AI, Machine Learning and computer firepower the way, say, the defence industry has, we would be solving disputes in under 5 minutes with almost flawless rates of ‘justice’ delivery.

You might argue now that the defence industry grows as quickly as it does because there is a very real danger to life and limb, and catastrophic consequences to inaction.

Isn’t it equally dangerous that a simple property ownership dispute takes over 40 years to reach a conclusion? “There are over 30 million cases pending” – this is not just a figure, it is (at the very least) 60 million real people, waiting endlessly for “justice”.

Each case is a family unable to move on, a property locked up, a couple unable to dissolve a marriage that is over, and a business losing precious time in the fight for survival.

I would respond by pointing that at home in India, it takes over 40 years at times for a simple property dispute to be resolved. There are over 30 million cases pending, each with their own stories attached. Properties languishing. Families tattered by disputes. Marriages broken and waiting to be dissolved or resuscitated. Businesses waiting for precious recoveries from defaulting creditors or absurd tax demands.

Like a slow cancer, delays in legal, tax and compliance are deadly, and have the same end result all too often, as a stroke.

If one were to look for a silver lining in this pandemic in the context of legal-tech, it would be that digital has no longer remained ‘the future’. It has become the present, a must-have for any nation struggling to bring its legal systems back to life.

As Tim Ferriss puts it, “Big changes can come in small packages. It is the small things done consistently that are the big things.”

So what needs to be done for our legal system to make the quantum leap into the digital age?

I believe we can definitely achieve this, quite quickly in fact, with simple well planned steps:

The first step is beginning with “the end in mind”, which simply means having a clear goal. The goal for us is to resolve over 30 million outstanding cases while also attending to the incremental number of cases being filed each year.

We need to do this in a timely manner – let us assume 6 months for the sake of discussion.

Now, we have our goal: “Resolving any new dispute filed, from inception [in the lowest Court] to final resolution [in the Supreme Court] within 6 months”.

The next step is building the processes that will make that happen. What is the workflow? What is the time for arguments and how many adjournments are granted? What is the current maximum efficiency of a single judge [which will be different depending on the type of dispute]? How do we multiply that efficiency by 10? What kind of support staff would be needed?

And now how many more judges are needed?

All of this has to be meticulously modelled to arrive at the success formula. This is complex, but extremely achievable given the current state of technology and the fact that the problem statement is blindingly clear.

Finally, and most importantly, what technology can be used to augment the defined process?A technology expert must be appointed to oversee this process, rather than a committee of judges, so that their time may be devoted to resol.

Starting with eliminating time wastage in the filing process – a simple online form can be adopted instead of a petition for certain matters (For eg: Bail and anticipatory bail, where the grounds are limited and defined)

To increase the Court’s efficiency, sitting time must be largely devoted to listening to arguments and pronouncing judgments. Routine matters, interlocutory applications and adjournments can be taken out using automation, where a request can be submitted online and based on the predefined rules, it is either accepted or rejected.

Where can AI help to analyse case files and suggest possible solutions even before they reach the eye of the judge? Where can machine learning help to resolve routine disputes, such as motor accident cases or consumer cases? Where can simple filing applications eliminate time and wastage in the filing process?

If this sounds like a lot of questions and not too many answers, you’re right. There will be multiple right answers which will take us to the end goal [stated above], and each technologist and process expert will have their own, equally correct viewpoints.

Like the invisible, weightless soul which breathes life into a 150 pound human being, the soul behind this entire transformation will be the mindset shift, looking at clients not as “beneficiaries” of the legal system, but as “customers” of it.

No organization would ever treat its customers the way the Indian legal system treats litigants. Going through endless hoops, filing reams of needless paperwork, taking out days [actually weeks and months] of their lives waiting for a resolution to their dispute.

When the British left us, they passed on the colonial mindset to our judicial system, which still looks at litigants as humble benefactors who should be grateful and appreciative of the outcomes it produces, no matter how dismal its efficiency.

Only a cold, hard and honest look at what we have actually achieved as a country and legal system and a willingness to look at citizens as our customers and masters, and the system the servant of the public will drive change.

That, coupled with small, well thought out steps can make us walk into that heaven of freedom which Tagore spoke about, compared to the shackles our system has us in today.