Driving change towards a citizen-centric legal system

Given the nature and complexity of the judicial system, it is generally believed that solutions with potential for major impact lie predominantly within the judiciary and executive

Updated: Nov 2, 2018 03:36:50 PM UTC
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A series of recent landmark judgments by the Supreme Court of India -- including the right to privacy, striking down Section 377, and the judgement on Aadhaar -- have been powerful and positive reminders of how strong and responsive institutions play a vital role in empowering the citizens.

For the most part, however, the current reality of our legal system is that it not only seems forbidding and distant for citizens, but is also not able to bring cases to closure quickly. Most aspects of a citizen’s interaction with the legal system are stuck in practices and processes from the past. There are multiple stages at which citizens face daunting challenges, because the legal system isn’t designed with the citizens’ needs at its heart.

Just a few examples of this: First Information Reports (FIRs) need to be submitted in person at police stations that may not be easy to find or navigate; summons are sent via the postal system and often remain undelivered; cases are scheduled manually in courts and case-lists put up in physical form outside courtrooms with uncertainty for citizens on the timings of the hearings; actual courtrooms can be hard to find; and the language and procedure at courtrooms can be alienating and intimidating.

How do we transform the legal system to be more citizen-centric, which provides the common man and woman with a smooth and dignified experience in their quest for justice?

Given the nature and complexity of the judicial system, it is generally believed that solutions with potential for major impact lie predominantly within the judiciary and executive. However, something that is not self-evident is that entrepreneurs can play a key role in this transformation.

There are already several examples of entrepreneurs – both “for profit” and non-profits -- working on different aspects of the judiciary and they are starting to make a difference.

Take VakilSearch for example, it is working on simplifying and standardising access to legal support for citizens. Companies like Indiafilings, LegalRaasta, and Quick Company are making it easier for small and mid-sized companies to manage the burden of regulatory compliance in tasks such as registering their companies, submitting trademarks, and filing taxes.

Several of these start-ups are leverage technology, include artificial intelligence and natural language processing. Non-profits like Nyaaya have worked to provide clear, actionable information about Indian laws in simple language to help citizens assert their rights and seek justice.

These are by no means the only organisations engaging in this space. Dasra has published a study on the landscape of organisations working on the issue of access to justice. Their work reveals that several non-profit entrepreneurs across the country have taken on the responsibility to develop innovative and impactful strategies to not only support and strengthen existing systems but also to make the law work better for common citizens. Their report, titled ‘Tipping the Scales’ profiles ten non-profits and the work they are doing across areas that span research and advocacy for legislative change; facilitating access to legal entitlements; and conducting training and sensitisation workshops for the police and the judiciary.

There are also some excellent examples of “intrapreneurs -- innovators and changemakers -- within the judicial system itself. R. K Saxena introduced rules for open prisons while he was a jail superintendent -- he set up the Sanganer open prison for which he formulated rules that included allowing prisoners to stay with family members and to do their choice of work.

The Supreme Court has recently directed the Union Home Affairs Ministry to work with state governments to evolve a uniform policy on open prisons and establish more of them. There are  increasing instances of courts serving summons through popular instant messaging service WhatsApp, following a precedent set by the Bombay High Court in 2017.

As more and more such entrepreneurs as well as “intrapreneurs” from within the judicial system work on innovations that can help reshape it, our hope is to see changes that make it easier for citizens to access services of the judicial system. NGOs like Vayam are working to find and nurture innovators and change makers to actively participate in making our justice delivery system more accessible and effective.

The availability of funding for initiatives like Vayam is an important issue. This a valuable area for Indian philanthropists and impact investors to focus on. Changing such a complex system is difficult and will take time, which is why the patient capital that philanthropists can deploy is crucial. It is encouraging to see the steadily growing enthusiasm to fund these entrepreneurs, as Indian philanthropists are becoming more strategic about their funding and increasingly focusing on non-traditional areas like governance.

Further, impact in a space as foundational as justice can magnify impact in other spaces such as education and healthcare by ensuring that citizens’ rights in those areas are better upheld.

We are at the early stages of this journey. As these efforts of entrepreneurs and philanthropists gather momentum, they can propel important citizen-centric innovations in our legal system.

The author is a Partner and Managing Director, India at Omidyar Network.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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