How design-thinking can help justice delivery in the Covid era

At its simplest, justice delivery is about ensuring ease of access to mechanisms which embed justice in the everyday life of each and every citizen of that jurisdiction.

 |  5-minute read |   19-06-2020
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In the pandemic-induced revised reality, prioritising universal and uniform access to justice for the common man is of paramount importance. William Gibson said, “The future is already here — just not evenly distributed.” How justice is delivered and to how many, is what matters today, as traditional institutions undergo a metamorphosis of sorts.

In his book, Tomorrow’s Lawyers, Richard Susskind widely recognised as the leading technology and innovation for justice scholar posits, “Is court service or a place?”

Justice in society isn’t merely about building institutions and processes. It’s about advancing values in the lived reality of every individual in society and formulating the right rules and regulations with minimum impediments to those who need justice the most. At its simplest, justice delivery is about ensuring ease of access to mechanisms which embed justice in the everyday life of each and every citizen of that jurisdiction.

main_supreme-court_r_061920020035.jpgIs court service or a place? (Photo: Reuters)

The amount of work that has been going on within the judiciary to ensure preparedness to a technology-led adjustment to the pandemic’s impositions, has brought us to the current day, where justice is being delivered effectively. The judiciary has ensured that modules of access to justice that are under consideration are made affordable and available. It is building for ‘Niti’ or institutional correctness, and also for the larger concept of “Nyaya”, or justice, to be pervasive across India. The value of “Nyaya” today is being addressed through design-thinking and technology.

We earlier wrote on the value of design thinking for public policy. The emphasis on enhancing user experience, based on design-thinking along with improving technological literacy and reach across India has created an opportunity structure for the judiciary to push for reforms. Justice DY Chandrachud spoke of this in a recent lecture. He said “, therefore, has to be a critical element in court design. We must think in terms of design. Design-thinking will go hand in hand with business process re-engineering.”

Based on this foundation of using technology and design thinking to advance access to justice for citizens laid by Justice Chandrachud, some paradigm-changing disruptions have taken place in the last few months in our judicial system, which ought to be spotlighted for their visionary nature.

First is the e-filing system that allows a litigant to file a case remotely, anywhere in India and at any time. Added benefits of online payment of court fees, a procedure for rectification of any defects in the filing, and also digital signatures, pinpoint how effective this will be.

Next is the digital infrastructure where different applications and portals have been conceived to make the judicial system more efficient. Citizens can view case status, hearing dates, and cause lists online via the E-Courts portal. Judicial officers and non-judicial staff use the Case Information System (CiS) to enter, store, track, and access case-related information. Ministries have adopted the Litigation Management and Briefing System (LiMBS) to enable them to manage their civil cases better. The system is a unified database of all civil cases in which the government is the litigant. NSTEP (National Service and Tracking of Electronic Processes) has been developed for quick, secure and transparent delivery of court processes to other court complexes in the country.

SUVAS (‘Supreme Court Vidhik Anuvaad Software’) is the first point of use of Artificial Intelligence within the Indian judiciary. It has advanced the cause of making the Judiciary more linguistically inclusive with its capability of translating English documents, orders or judgments into nine distinct vernacular languages scripts.

Finally, the signal that access to justice is a service for citizens even during the pandemic was the shift to the virtual court system. Just this week, a committee of seven Supreme Court judges, led by Justice NV Ramana, have decided to continue hearing cases online and not revert to physical hearings. This decision takes into cognisance the risks for personnel visiting court premises amidst the pandemic. That this was even possible to have been contemplated is testament to the work that has gone into making the courts technology-ready.

In this rapidly evolving ecosystem, there is, of course, more that can still be done. There is a pressing need for digital integration of the entire justice system if we are to have a truly efficient process flow. Legal policy thinktank — DAKSH, has drafted a series of white papers in September 2019 on “Next Generation Justice Platform” on this vision. A pilot highlighted in one of its white papers has been in Warangal, Telangana, where the Interoperable Criminal Justice System (ICJS) provides horizontal institutional information symmetry to enable real-time status updates for a case. DAKSH has also recommended establishing an Evidence Management System — a unified facility through which the judiciary, lawyers, and police can view electronic records of the evidence submitted in any case. However, this must be with the caveat that information is available only on permitted access basis for parties with locus standi on the case.

An area of dispute resolution that is fast gaining traction is that of a technology-led mechanism known as Online Dispute Resolution (ODR). In a judicial system that does have significant pendency, and where post-pandemic there could be several-fold increases in small and medium value matters, ODR could be a scalable, affordable, and efficient mechanism for resolving disagreements. NITI Aayog held a critical stakeholders meet on June 6 to discuss the potential of ODR in India. There was a uniform consensus of the Supreme Court judges (active and retired), government representatives, counsels of prominent corporations, and technology pioneers on the need for justice delivery platforms beyond just the courts.

Building an ODR ecosystem in India should ensure focus on accessibility for the common citizen who is most often the litigant in disputes of small and medium value. It also has, through technology, the ability to remain mindful and preemptive in introducing measures to overcome socioeconomic, linguistic, demographic, and geographical hurdles or differences.

Lastly, the technology-led intervention has the potential to identify and use disputes data to improve legislation. Identification at a meta-level across India of causes for a relatively high number of disputes can be analysed, assessed, and where appropriate, reforms could perhaps be considered.

Designing for Nyaya aided by technology, disruption in justice delivery is just around the corner. All of this is to ensure that justice at its very core becomes more accessible, affordable, efficient and equitable for the common man.

Also read: Why governance will need design-thinking in a post-Covid world


Desh Gaurav Sekhri and Satwik Mishra

Desh Gaurav Sekhri is Officer on Special Duty at NITI Aayog. Satwik Mishra is a young professional at NITI Aayog

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