Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Some Alternatives for an Effective Judicial Environment

Entrepreneurship in traditional legal systems in India are often ‘non-existent’, even if we count the role of law firms or legal consultants, and debarring some very good legal journalism sprouting every now and then. However, from a citizen’s point of view or rather from a consumer’s point of view I just see the concrete in the pillars of justices; from the Supreme Court to lower courts. There was an emerging class of people, mostly lawyers who ‘fixed things’, a plumber like activity which, however with increasing leakages. They earned the tag of ‘settlement lawyers’ who over the years got overshadowed by the ‘administrative courts’, and an unhappy litigant who flew out of the country to seek justice. The concept of courts and justice have become stagnant (even some lawyers say that law has become stagnant thanks to the precedents!). There has been no innovation which has bettered the system to the benefit of its users, the litigants. Alternative Dispute Resolutions (ADR) mechanisms have started functioning as an extension of courts. Specialised professionals have not been able to contribute much to this.
The question is ‘Whether citizens have a choice of forums?’ or an opportunity to seek redressal without going to the courts. I am not talking about the Mafioso or the underworld gang’s and their ‘unjudicial behaviour’. I am talking about fixing issues or settling disputes at the preliminary level. Here again I am talking about simple issues which are given a topping by smart lawyers through complex use of legal language. This case is made out in relation to consumer issues; which have a set of consumer forums and systems from bottom to top. Just imagine when your phone goes out or your SIM recharge didn’t work. We don’t call the lawyer, even if he is your close friend (and hungry). You get custom replies through the service provider’s customer service. Going by the latest TRAI Report on Consumer Grievance Redressal Report; even the most horrible customer service does not perform very badly. Taking cue from this; can we think of similar centres to help the citizens becoming a potential litigant? The Gram Nyayalaya was a good idea but bad in implementation. It should have been outsourced it to someone!
Majority of the issues that hit the consumer courts are those relating to bad service, defects of goods which are largely fixed by the companies who provide the service or manufacture the product. The latest statistics mention that defective products constitute the worst offence (21.3 percent) with Banking the worst offender (16.3 percent). The consumer law has really matured to give them legal protection; but is still wanting in giving them ‘access to justice’. Service delivery mechanisms of government, especially at the local self government level have been suffering all these maladies. Since they are supposed to directly interact with the people; the impact of their activities is directly felt on them. Electricity, water, roads etc. can only progress through better grievance redressal mechanisms, than shying away from responsibility. Few states have enacted Right to Service Act which will be a game-changer if implemented in the right sense. But from various reports, it still follows the same route.
Issues to ponder
1) Number of courts - As per latest figures there are just 632 District Consumer Forums in India, which means one for every 20 lakh population 2) Time - Consumer case disposal in India stands at a good percent of 87 percent. However, the issue is the delay. The mandated time for disposal is 90 days for district courts and 150 days at state level as per Consumer Protection Act, 1986. Just 6 percent and 38 percent in district and state forums were disposed within this time. 3) Awareness - 70 percent of people in India are unaware of Consumer Rights (ASSOCHAM Social Development Foundation (ASDF), 2014). Approximately Rupees 3 is spend per person for Consumer Awareness in India as per 12th Plan Allocation for Jago Grahak Jago; the campaign which costs Rupees 409 Crore. 4) Access - The consumer forums don’t come to the aggrieved; you need to go there. Sounds genuine from a legal perspective; however the cost is high if one believes in the ‘idea of justice’. Not what Amartya Sen propounds but in the context of ‘justice to all’. What is the cost per litigant to approach the court? The argument that Supreme Court is inundated with Delhi litigants supports a rationale argument on proximity of courts.
Now I bring the entrepreneurship element in here. I would dream about start-ups vying each other to develop solutions for legal issues in India. It can be a mobile app to any high end tool which will enable one to dissect and treat disputes of the people. Don’t get me wrong here. It’s impossible to replace fellow lawyers and judges. It’s all about improving the mechanisms and systems which are more effective and efficient. We are far behind; or rather the judicial system has lagged behind when others have atleast jumped into the technology wagon. Other than a very low user-friendly court information system for providing causelist of the cases and judgment reports which you need to be lucky to get the right one, has not progressed much. M.J Antony in Business Standard had emphasized the horrible nature of court websites which are totally useless for a common man. Forget about those consumers who want to know about their rights or the laws existing. There is so much opportunities and lot to be covered. Our brother China has developed systems wherein the Higher Court judges can get the entire story behind the case before him in his screen; reducing wastage of time and ensuring quickness in action. Of course I don’t neglect the fact that judges need to be smart! The strategy should be to enable swiftness in action and precision in purpose which can happen only if we develop more ideas and innovate on solutions available for legal or judicial systems.
There have been some worthwhile attempts in consumer complaints redressal from private initiatives on public service systems. One of the impressive platforms is Akosha who had raised funds from Sequoia capital and Morpheus which has around 7 lakh complaints filed with 61 percent resolved. Another one is Consumer Complaints- Indian Consumer Complaints Forum in addition to the Core Centre run by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs which fails to impress. Such online initiatives will make a difference in the coming years as internet penetration increases. The idea behind such initiatives is to pool those disgruntled consumers and effectively pressurize companies to solve it or face it! Even those remarks on products and services in facebook pages or tweets have been seriously noted by companies to act swift before it jolts into a bigger issue, affecting its brand value. This is the power of technology and media! Just imagine if one post “We are celebrating our 3rd Anniversary. Still hasn’t got my marriage registration certificate”, on facebook, poking fun on the registration department for not issuing the certificate. Will anything happen? Of course you will get lot many likes and many sharing their disappointments or happiness! But the issue is still unresolved. Imagine what if IT Department of the Municipal Corporation traces the post via a developed algorithm to identify the person, cross check the issue and remedy it. Wouldn’t it be great!. Of course we have the technology’ but do we have the will? Look at the available mechanisms for registering consumer complaints; the National Consumer Helpline Number 1800-11-4000. The more you try to call on this number; the more aggrieved and frustrated you become. I often wonder why we have multiple helpline numbers (many of them not working). Can’t we have a single number system which integrates all services instead of forcing us to be a mathematical genius in numbers!! The Jansuvidha programme of Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation tried to work out an integrated system by providing a helpline for consumers under its jurisdiction. It was a good attempt and fairly successful but still needs improvement. With government investing huge money on e-governance initiatives I believe they have understood the importance; but have not been able to translate into action. It is here we need to utilize the services of entrepreneurs, NGO’s, companies who can connect with the consumers and assist in these process. Let the Jago Grahak Jago run with all their support.
The solution lies in different channels. One important thing is to reduce issues turning into disputes. The difference lies in intervention before the court process shall step in.
  1. For consumer related issues; better service and customer management would reduce the percentage of complaints by a huge margin. The government should invest more on improving their service delivery than on campaigns.
  2. Introducing Rating systems for products and services would help to measure and improve quality.  This of course shall need proper Enforcement/Regulation.
  3. Seek redressal locally and improving access to justice shall be a further step.
  4. Use technology in bridging consumers and minimize risks. Interconnectedness helps in effective resolution by quickening the process, bring transparency and minimize the cost.
These suggestions need further focus to really shape into practical solutions which can work for everyone alike. Opening the judicial and legal system is inevitable. We need professionals in court management, case management and even documentation. Judges shall be assisted by a team of such professionals who can support legal research, help them in their duty and facilitate the judicial process. Let Judicial Impact Assessments be carried out in a transparent manner through use of technology. Let the people really connect with the judicial system and remove the fear of the courts. These measures will enable in achieving ‘justice’. Let’s do justice for all!
Madhu Sivaraman

Director (Projects)

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