Online Dispute Resolution: A possible cure to the virus plaguing the Justice Delivery System?
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Online Dispute Resolution: A possible cure to the virus plaguing the Justice Delivery System?

Bhaven Shah

In wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, ‘work from home’ and ‘study from home’ have become the new norm for businesses and students around the world. In India too, the looming threat of mass infections has received a similar welcome. The situation in Indian courts is no different.

In a bid to combat the spread of COVID-19, the Supreme Court, amongst other things, said it will introduce court proceedings via video conferencing to avoid the 'people to people’ contact. While this is great to limit the spread of the novel virus, the idea is definitely not a novel one. Many countries have already beat us to it.

I am no expert to talk about the spread, containment or cure of this novel virus; let’s leave that to our extremely capable medical experts. On the contrary, I would like to draw attention to an age-old virus that has infected our dispute resolution system and left 400 million of us litigators to fend for ourselves in our quest to seek the constitutionally guaranteed basic human right: Justice.

When you think of it, hasn’t the justice delivery system in India been suffering from an epidemic of its own? Let’s look at some statistics, and perhaps even a cure.

The National Judicial Data Grid (that monitors pendency of cases in Indian courts) reflects a whopping 32 million pending cases with research indicating an average wait time of 17 years from start to finish.

The reasons for the epidemic are manifold – low judge to population ratio (1 judge for every 58,800 people), abysmal infrastructure, judicial vacancies, procedural complexities, lack of alternatives, lack of awareness and so on. However, the direct economic cost of this ‘epidemic’ to India is pegged at 0.77% of its GDP. Let’s not even venture out to determine what the indirect costs are.

So, while #WorkFromHome and #WFH have become one of the most popular twitter hashtags, is the time ripe to revolutionize dispute resolution in India with #ResolveFromHome?

Online Dispute Resolution, or ODR, is a branch of dispute resolution which facilitates resolution of disputes using Information and Communication Technology. It is the modern counterpart of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) mechanisms like mediation, arbitration, negotiation, or a combination of any two or all three.

This modern approach gives the freedom to disputing parties to decide how they want their disputes to be handled, and the use of technology facilitates the entire process, thereby making it convenient, cost-effective and efficient.

ODR has extensive application and can be used to resolve a wide variety of disputes ranging from simple civil disputes to even certain compoundable criminal matters.

The use of ODR in India is at a nascent stage and is starting to gain prominence day by day. A joint reading and interpretation of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996, Information Technology Act, 2000, and Indian Evidence Act, 1872 not only make ODR legally and technically viable, but also helps overcome jurisdictional issues, eliminate geographical barriers, automate administrative tasks, improve productivity of professionals, promote eco-friendly processes, and finally, deliver a quick, economical and effective solution to disputes.

That being said, the three branches of governance have been making strides in optimizing our legal and justice delivery system and are making it conducive to formally induct ODR in mainstream dispute resolution.

In May 2019, a high-level committee constituted by the Reserve Bank of India submitted a report on 'Deepening of Digital Payments' in India and was of the view that payment systems should move towards using a machine driven, online dispute resolution system to handle complaints expeditiously.

President of India Ram Nath Kovind and Chief Justice of India SA Bobde stressed on the adoption of mediation as a tool for dispute resolution and integrating artificial intelligence in judicial processes.

Recently, the Supreme Court of India in a suo motu writ petition captioned ‘Expeditious trial of cases under Section 138 of N. I. Act, 1881’, took note of the observations in Meters and Instruments Private Limited and anr. v. Kanchan Mehta, that

“Use of modern technology needs to be considered not only for paperless courts but also to reduce overcrowding of courts. There appears to be need to consider categories of cases which can be partly or entirely concluded "online" without physical presence of the parties by simplifying procedures where seriously disputed questions are not required to be adjudicated.”

India’s progress is being weighed down due to lack of conflict management creativities and an overburdened court machinery. While it is commendable to witness these momentous steps to promote ADR in our country, infusion of technology will only speed up the disposal of cases and help us create a conducive environment for foreign and domestic trade and investment, thereby making India the most suitable destination for businesses with a high Ease of Doing Business ranking.

Coming to the environmental impact of this epidemic – 11 billion sheets of paper are used every year in Indian courts. The green cost to this is 1.3 million trees and 109 billion litres of water every single year.

Today, there are millions of people in the remotest of our cities, towns and villages who have no access to justice, but they do have access to smart phones. With the help of technology, we can improve the access to justice significantly and bring equity at the fingertips of each and every Indian irrespective of his or her geographic location.

On an average, each judge in India is allocated 1,350 cases, whereas his counterpart in the US is required to deal with only 388 cases. Promoting a technology enabled dispute resolution system will not only help the litigants but will also help in easing the burden and improving the efficiency of the Indian legal ecosystem.

And with this, I envision the India of my dreams – a country where courts dispense justice, governments govern, businesses thrive, and her citizens enjoy a fulfilling life.

What do you think about the concept of #ResolveFromHome?

The author is a co-founder of Presolv360 – a legal-tech company that specializes in online commercial dispute resolution. With an academic background in finance and law, he has a decade of experience in understanding law, human relations and conflict resolution.

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