Delivering Contactless Legal Services: Let us make a start

Yesterday’s post was about the principled need to start delivering contactless legal services to enable the doors of justice to remain open in all adversities, including lockdowns emanating from various threats that are likely to emerge in future. Today, let us explore the ways and means of making this start. Let me begin with a disclaimer. The process will not be easy and painless. What we need to realise is that this has to start now and gradually ramp up. All sorts of issues will be raised, but those problems will need to be resolved and conquered. Today’s blog is a proposal to follow a gradual and do-able path to achieve the objective of contactless courts in India.
For those who do not know, many Delhi High Court judges conduct their proceedings in a paperless manner. The e-files are displayed on their boards and they use touch screens and a stylus to scroll down the pages. Similarly, there are many counsels who use their tablets to argue and do not use their physical files in the court room. I cannot possibly imagine any difficulty in pairing these judges and counsels to start with remote and contactless court proceedings. A beginning can be made by constituting a special contactless court roster of the Hon’ble Judges who are adept in paperless proceedings. The Registry can invite counsels who are interested in having their cases listed before the contactless benches and can handle arguments from their tablets to submit their requests for a hearing. There could be an issue with not having a video conferencing link available to connect the Courtrooms and Lawyers. This may not be a daunting task for the initiated and the interested. Numerous meetings software exist, including Skype, Zoom, etc which can make contactless court hearings possible. The Supreme Court and many High Courts are already using some to enable hearings via video-conferencing in urgent matters. Of course, a second computer will be required by the counsels for the video chat, which most counsels who already argue using their tablets will either have or can borrow from their family members. If not, they can wait and prepare while the most resourceful and most motivated of the lot break the ground.
From my observations in the Delhi High Court, it appears most of these counsels practice on the commercial side. Naturally, the matters that will jump the queue will be of commercial nature. Steps will need to be taken to ensure that contactless delivery of legal services does not remain confined to cases of the rich and influential. So, as the contactless benches hear the cases mostly on the commercial side, cases of the ordinary litigant (I use this phrase for my inability to find a better phrase) can be prepared for such hearings. This may not be as daunting as it may appear on the first blush. A legal aid contactless court roster can also be made. Legal aid cases can be ear-marked for such hearings and a special panel of legal aid counsels who are willing to participate in this yajna can be prepared. State counsels who opt for this mode of hearing can have briefs on the contactless court roster allotted to them. In the alternative, if the existing state counsels do not have the skill-set to participate in such hearings, a special state panel for contactless courts could also be prepared. It goes without saying that I offer my services for this and request others interested to send me a message on this blog or on my mobile 9999714802 to participate.
All existing legal aid and state counsels should be given an opportunity to equip themselves with the skill-sets required for a contactless court hearing. State counsels should also be given the opportunity to upgrade their skills. Atmabodh has the capacity to mobilise technology professionals to implement this task. Atmabodh has, in the past, incubated a project for computer literacy children of commercial sex workers. The project has sustained itself through generations of engineering students and now runs as a standalone project. A list of e-skilling sessions can be recommended to them along with a remote technology mentor to acquire the skills needed to become a part of the contactless court legal aid panel. 15 days should be sufficient for acquiring these skill sets for a person who is otherwise able to use e-mail and video chat .
In the first wave, it will be difficult to run the entire process of client conference, drafting, filing, defect removal, listing, admission hearing, completion of pleadings and final hearing. So, to start with, all jail appeals and second appeals where paper-books are ready and have been scanned for e-courts can be taken up. The pdf files can be sent to counsels who can read the briefs, make notes and argue the matters. A parallel team can work on preparing a few cases that require deeper engagement like conferences between clients and counsels. Again, jail appeals from jails with existing video-conferencing facilities could be good test cases. Once we are able to pick these low lying fruits, more teams can be added and capabilities expanded from one category to the other. A lesson that I learnt during my student days leading the Tihar Jail Legal Services Programme at the Campus Law Centre, University of Delhi, is that one a beginning is made, a good idea follows the logarithmic curve. This is an article of faith in my mind now.
As pointed out in yesterday’s blog, contactless delivery of legal services is a necessary concomitant of the state of the society that we are in today. It is COVID-19 today, it can be a bio-warfare scenario tomorrow. Away from these scary scenarios, this will enable the judicial system to clear huge backlogs from the system, especially in those cases where the delivery of justice is mostly contactless, where clients handed over briefs, have done the initial conferencing required for completion of pleadings and now it is only for the counsels to argue. This will remove the physical barriers to access to justice in normal times, where litigants are unable to approach courts, especially higher courts, due to lack of time and resources to travel on multiple occasions to the lawyers and courts. Viewed from another angle, such an exercise also has the ability to reduce the cost of legal services for the bulk of matters where counsels sitting at a distance can provide legal services at a lower cost than their equally competent counterparts in the cities. In the coming days, expect to hear more on these aspects.