After the breakdown of Covid-19 in the country, it has almost been two months, that people are locked in their houses and are either working from home or working through using digital modes like video conferencing, zoom calls and WhatsApp calls to connect with their bosses, employers and other co-workers. In such a scenario, when people can’t go out to work, digitalization is playing a major and effective role. It is the requirement and as well as the only way through which India’s economy can grow in this stagnant situation.
Every profession is doing its best to control the crisis, but only a few of them are able to control it. Once this pandemic is over, everything from our lifestyle to eating habits will change. Life, as we know it, will change. Under such circumstances, one can only use this pandemic to challenge themselves and use this opportunity to bring a positive change in society. Since laws are what governs this society, this pandemic has given a chance to the legal fraternity to bring change in the way of litigation and in practising. By making use of technology, things can be innovated in a way to enhance the legal decisions as well as the legal knowledge around the country. Right now, the way the situation is prevailing and the way the lockdowns have been extending, the only method left with the courts, lawyers, and the legal profession is to shift digitally to maintain and govern law and order in our states.
Use of AI in Courts pre Covid
In the recent celebration of Constitution Day, the Chief Justice of India, SA Bobde, has proposed to introduce the system of Artificial intelligence (AI) to improve the judicial system of the country. Such a system will help in better administration and delivery of judgements. However, the CJI also mentioned that people should not form an opinion that digitalization will ever replace the judges of the country. The event was organized by Supreme Court bar association (SCBA) in which the CJI said “We propose to introduce, if possible, a system of artificial intelligence. There are many things which we need to look at before we introduce ourselves. We do not want to give the impression that this is ever going to substitute the judges.”
The president of India, Ram Nath Kovind, was also present in the event where the Supreme Court App was introduced. Justice Bodbe, while talking about the application, asserted that artificial intelligence fueled law translation system will facilitate the quality translation and will further help in improving the efficiency of the Indian Judicial System. The app that was released will translate the judgements into nine religion languages.
A meeting was conducted of e-committee of the High court in which the head of e-committee Justice DY Chandrachud head of the Supreme Court e-committee, had stressed on the need to start virtual courts in all states not only to deal with traffic challans but also in all other summary violations.
The Supreme Court of India is leaving no stone unturned in hearing and adjourning of the cases through the courts are shut and there is a nationwide lockdown in the country till 3rd of May. On 23rd march to practise social distancing and to prevent the spread of the virus, the court decided to ban the entry of lawyers and litigants in the court, and it was also decided to hear only those cases which were of utmost importance and urgency. According to the recent reports, the Supreme Court has heard 593 cases in the last 34 days through video conferencing and other digital facilities. 203 out of the 593 cases were connected cases, that is, cases involving the same issue which were heard along with the main case. Furthermore, the top court also delivered judgments in 41 cases during this period. Through these 41 judgments, the court disposed of an additional 174 cases which were connected matters. The apex court decided to start the method of video conferencing on 23rd march, a day before prime minister announced the nationwide lockdown in the view of Covid-19 pandemic. Since then, the court sat for hearing on 17 working days with a total of 34 benches hearing cases through video conferencing. Not only this, but 53 benches also sat to decide review petitions. However, those were decided in chambers without an oral hearing and with these 84 review petitions were disposed of by the court during this period.
The hearings in the Supreme Court are conducted through the Vidyo app, which can be downloaded on mobile phones and desktop. The platform is hosted on the servers of the National Data Centre of National Informatics Centre.
While the judges on the bench join the video conference from the residence of one of the judges, the lawyers join from their respective houses.
The court also came out with standard operating procedure (SOP) for filing, mentioning and hearing of cases through video conferencing on three occasions - March 23, March 26 and April 15.
Apart from the court cases, online consultations have been started by the lawyers for their clients. Lawyers are now giving online advice through video calls or telephonic calls to make their clients know about what is legally right and legally wrong. The lawyers are able to take up cases and study them so that no time in the future to fight such cases is lost. It is the correct time for the litigants to make a place for them and earn the trust of their clients. Such situations will later lead potential clients to the litigants.
Big law firms are able to connect to their clients through social media and work from home techniques for the employees is working well for such firms. As most of the work these firms tackle is about research and writings, the work from home structures is proving to be supportive of them.
Therefore, the legal fraternity has witnessed a significant shift in the way they are working and practising post-covid-19 which is productive as well as beneficial to them.
What future holds for Legal Fraternity?
Imagine a scenario, where there is no lockdown and the people can finally go on dinners and meet their friends. Such three friends’ meet for dinner from whom one is a lawyer, the other is a designer and the third one is an entrepreneur. These three friends meet and they start discussing the effects of covid-19. The conclusion of the discussion comes out that, the lawyer has been hired by the entrepreneur to fire one of his employees who didn’t work from home and is now asking for a full paycheque. With this, the lawyer is also hired by the designer to sue his boss for not giving him the paycheque for the lockdown period. These are what the future of lawyers is once the lockdown is over. Coming out of the imagination, as the nation is going through a lockdown because of the outbreak of covid-19, the businesses are in a dilemma as they have no idea how will they continue their operations and pay their employees. In a pandemic where the government is asking the businesses to provide full salaries to their employees and not to fire them due to the lockdown, consider the number of legalities and issues this company had to go through to fire its 200-300 employees across the country. The company must have consulted legal firms and considered the advice of the lawyers. Besides all this, a lot of paperwork and documentation must have been required by the company to fire its employees without involving any mistakes and errors legally.
On the other hand, the fired and frustrated employees during this time must be eagerly waiting for the lockdown to end and consult their legal friends to sue the company for such an ignorant act. Consulting their lawyers and filing cases against them again means, work for the legal fraternity. Hence, the future is full of opportunities for lawyers and legal firms. The only thing they have to do is to target the right group of people and build trust among the clients. For lawyers, COVID-19 crisis is a boon in the guise of a bane. When clients have lots of problems, lawyers thrive. The crisis has created lots of problems for clients. And therefore a lot of work - now, and for months to come, for lawyers.
As for the courts, the overnight shift in the paradigm is proof that courts can are efficiently equipped with the expertise to act without limitation at any hour of need. As stated by a senior advocate CS Vaidyanatha “This is an inflexion point for the legal profession in India. Till now, the mindset was one of resistance to change, or at best, incremental change. The disruption occasioned by Covid-19 has put forward challenges that can be best countered with wholesome and wholesale changes – by the adoption of online courts with limited or no oral hearing but based on brief written submissions.”
On the plus side, the pandemic has paved its way in forcing our age-old legal practice to go digital quicker, which shall hopefully continue even post the lockdown and the pandemic. There may be some guidelines pursued on this matter later on, once the lockdown relaxes.
Introduction to E-Contracts
Post Covid-19, digitalization is taking over and therefore e-contracts are also increasing and making their place in the economy. Electronic contracts or e-contracts are agreements entered through an electronic form mostly through a software system as opposed to the traditional contracts documented on paper and signed using the wet ink. The Indian laws are recognizing various types of e-contracts such as contracts which are entered through emails, clickwrap and shrink wrap contracts and other similar platforms. However, to recognize it as a valid and legally enforceable contract, the pre-requisite of the Indian Contract Act,1872 needs to be followed. E-contracts execution is done by various modes among which one of the easiest and safest way is through digital signatures. The Information Technology Act enables obtaining of digital signatures in a scenario where social distancing is must, and people are not allowed to meet each other. Digital signatures are introduced so that contracts can be signed digitally and norms of social distancing are not hampered. It is important to note that there are certain contracts which are not eligible for execution through online modes. Furthermore, the contracts which are executed should be only made, after taking the help of legal people. The government is also taking initiatives to open online portals for the payment of stamp duties for such contracts.
On the brighter side, the biggest winner in this technological shift may be the solving of the pendency problem in the Indian courts. As per the McKinsey Reports, 22% of a lawyer’s job can be automated.
Covid-19 is a troublesome situation for everyone, but these are the testing times. The legal mind has to now be creative and find opportunities and solutions in this chaos. As soon as the lockdown is uplifted, things will change and the adoption of such changes will be the only option left. The big law firms, as well as the individual lawyers and small law firms, are doing stellar work concerning the COVID crisis, innovating new services, helping clients with their current legal problems, and some have even set up dedicated desks for Covid related work. Therefore, the one who will be well prepared will be able to find the right opportunities amid Covid-19.