Centre for Internet & Society

On Legal Services Day, November 9, 2016, LegalDesk.com collaborated with iSPIRT to host a conference on the “Digitalization of the Indian Legal System”. The event invited prominent speakers to present their organizations’ work and to participate in a panel discussion followed by a Q&A period for the audience.

The co-founder of DAKSH Society of India, Kishore Mandyam, opened the event with a thought-provoking presentation on the efficiency levels of the current legal system and the kinds of progress that can be brought about by technological reforms. Members of LegalDesk.com then presented their ideas and then introduced their newest white paper on Legal Digitalization, providing a brief overview of the study and summarizing the most relevant sections. The panel discussion then proceeded, moderated by Sanjay Khan Nagra, a policy expert at iSPIRT Foundation. He facilitated an insightful and conducive discussion around the advantages, disadvantages, risks and incentives of digitalizing the Indian legal system. On the discussion panel was Kishore Mandyam from DAKSH Society and Prabhuling K Navadgi, the Additional Solicitor General of India.

The objectives to the conference, as per its website, were to: (1) examine the current legal framework and the possibility of amendments in laws to facilitate digitalization of the system, (2) asses the potential of India Stack in digitalizing the legal system, (3) to identify statutes which require amendment, (4) identify the hurdles and roadblocks in the path towards digital reform of the legal ecosystem, and (5) suggest amendments to the act and potential areas of improvement. With those objectives in mind, this blog post intends to provide a brief overview of the main narratives shared in the conference and to identify some of the loopholes and unanswered questions that I was left with by the end.

Improved efficiency is the dominant narrative used to advocate for the digitalization of the Indian legal system. According to LegalDesk.com, the current Indian legal system relies mostly on paperwork, resulting in thousands of courts and over a million advocates accumulating lackhs of ongoing cases and an enormous pile of pending cases, mostly due to insufficient information. It is stated that the traditional methods of legal documentation, paperwork and court work must change through awareness, technology and pursuance by the government, as it needs to be implemented throughout the country. The key idea here is that digital transactions are faster and simplify the process of storing information. The ultimate desired outcome here, then, is increased efficiency and transparency.

One must question, however, if this narrative may be overly generous with the credit it gives to technology. IT systems, like many other manmade structures, are always bound to glitch and crash. It would be useful, then, to question whether the legal system is a department that can afford the complications that inevitably accompany a digital transformation. If portals or servers fail at critical times (i.e. when a person needs to confirm their trial date, submit a document before a deadline, or any other pressing procedures), the consequences may in fact outweigh the convenience brought about by overall digitalization. This is not to imply that the legal system cannot or should not undergo a digital transformation. Rather, it is to pose the question of whether the government will dedicate sufficient funds and expertise towards developing a resilient and reliable IT system for the courts. The conference was strongly centered on the concept that technology is always the way forward. This is a positive idea but one must pay special attention to the complications that may arise with the digitalization of a system that must function in a particularly time-sensitive manner – and to ensure that these complications can be managed efficiently and effectively should they arise. This then, requires more than a mere push for digitalization. Introducing new technological platforms is a positive step towards digitalization. However, there is a need for a detailed, government-authorized plan on how the judicial system will efficiently and smoothly undergo this digital transformation in a sustainable and resilient manner.

A presenter from LegalDesk.com mentioned Estonia’s model of complete digital governance as an example of successful digitalization: “If a small country like Estonia can do it, why can’t we?” While it is useful to draw examples and lessons from other countries, it is also crucial to recognize the contextual differences between countries. The presenter’s point was that Estonia is small in both size and population and has just recently gained independence in 1991—and has nonetheless been able to undergo technological reform and completely digitalize governance systems. India’s case is extremely different as one can logically argue that digital inclusion is more difficult to accomplish for large, spatially dispersed populations. Furthermore, the socioeconomic disparities in India, particularly in income and literacy, contribute to an immense digital divide that Estonia did not, to any comparable extent, face in order to digitalize governance over 1.3 million individuals. This is not to suggest that India cannot become a world leader in digital governance, or become comparable to Estonia. Rather, this is to highlight the importance of recognizing historical, political and sociocultural differences between countries when comparing governance models and digitalization processes. There is a need to indigenize digital reform strategies and platforms in India to cater to its unique context and vast diversity. This can be done by focusing on issues such as the language of digital governance, ensuring sufficient distribution of access to public digital platforms, and prioritizing the inclusion of all socioeconomic classes. I would argue that digitalization could come at a greater cost than benefit if it perpetuates the exclusion of the underprivileged members of society, especially from a system as critical as the judiciary. These topics were alarmingly overlooked in the conference.

The topic of privacy was also quite overlooked in the conference. As a step towards digital transformation, LegalDesk.com presented the new eNotary technology, which would be implemented by utilizing a combination of Adhaar based authentication, eSign, digilocker systems such as India Stack and video/audio recorded interviews. With the eNotary system, attestation, authentication and verification of legal instruments can be done remotely.  This is expected to make paperwork easier, faster and more secure, as individuals would log into digital platforms using their Adhaar numbers to perform their judiciary procedures. A member of the audience asked about privacy concerns associated with digitalizing the legal records or property ownership information of individuals. Kishore Mandyam, from DAKSH, answered confidently with a statement that privacy is not a pressing issue here. He asserted that privacy concerns are a western construct that we have adopted in urban parts of India but that is not a concern for the majority of locals. It is clear, however, from examples such as the United States’ predictive policing practices, that accumulating data regarding the legal affiliations of individuals can result in discriminatory practices if this data does not remain strictly confidential to protect the privacy rights of citizens. This is not to mention the other forms of discrimination that can arise from the accumulation of such data, such as the targeting of certain demographics by corporate marketing and credit scoring practices that rely on trends in big data. To keep citizens’ legal records and affairs out of these databases, a digital legal system must be securely encrypted and protected by rigid privacy policies. India may have a varying context that leads to different privacy concerns with regards to a digital legal system. In any case, special attention must be given to privacy and security rights of individuals as their Adhaar numbers become attached to all their online personal data, including their legal records and judicial affairs.

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