Treat dispute types as the 'unit of change' to reform our justice system

Taking ‘dispute type’ as a unit of change has worked well for transforming the justice system in the past.
Taking ‘dispute type’ as a unit of change has worked well for transforming the justice system in the past.


  • We can adapt the judiciary to the digital world by aiming much needed reforms at cases clubbed apart by type. This will allow us to take a sandbox approach.

The Unified Payments Interface (UPI) transformed payments. In the process, it streamlined transactions, connected banks and enabled ecosystem players to build citizen-centric solutions. In 20 years, credit card companies got just 9 million point-of-sale terminals to merchants, whereas, just eight years after its launch, India already has 350 million UPI QR codes.

The UPI journey didn’t start by merely digitizing the existing payment system. Instead, it focused on the outcomes it was looking to achieve. All the steps required to enable that—the actors that had to be aligned, the technology that needed to be built, the incentives that had to be created, and the governance that was required—were conceptualized with that in mind.

We need a similar transformation of dispute resolution in the country. But, where do we start? In an earlier article, we discussed the idea of selecting an appropriate ‘unit of change’ for reform. What then is the most effective unit of change for transforming the dispute resolution experience?

Also read: We need judicial system reforms to ensure swift disposal of cases

For a citizen, a ‘dispute’—from the moment it is triggered until it is resolved—is a single experience that is not segmented by different institutions or processes. The objective is to resolve the dispute effectively without worrying about engaging with various other institutions, actors or processes. If our goal is to transform citizens’ dispute resolution experience, then the obvious unit of change to focus on would be ‘dispute type.’

The first step would be to map out the entire journey of the parties in a dispute. With this understanding, we will be able to adapt the justice system to the user, using technology to the maximum extent possible. Let’s see how this might work in cheque-bouncing disputes, which comprise 10-15% of criminal cases in the country. How might we re-imagine these disputes from the perspective of citizens?

Could we, for instance, design a system where banks proactively send alerts to the parties, providing them information needed to take necessary action? Can ensure that citizens get reliable information on their rights, obligations and choices from AI chatbots? Can we help them easily discover mediators and lawyers through a portal? 

Can we use existing digital ecosystems like the GST information network and that of the National Payments Corporation of India to offer credentialled digital evidence for them to use? Can we build digital ecosystems that reliably deliver notices to relevant parties? 

Also read: Artificial Intelligence in judiciary: CJI DY Chandrachud speaks on possibilities of AI, role of judges in such cases

Can we offer them ways to asynchronously submit documents or digitally request the rescheduling of hearings? Can all the systems that a citizen interacts with operate seamlessly with each other?

We can set up special courts to resolve distinct ‘dispute types.’ This will let us carry out the changes we are proposing within a sand-boxed environment that would allow us to iterate and validate the reimagined process within the confines of a single ‘dispute type.’ 

It will allow us to narrowly focus the change management efforts that are needed in a manner that will make outcomes easily measurable. These special courts can be used to demonstrate proofs-of-concept for the integration of other dispute types with the larger judicial system.

A dispute-type approach would also give us the most bang for the buck. Many of the ‘people’ (lawyers, litigants, judges) and ‘actions’ (user authentication, issuance of summons, scheduling of hearings) that make up the user journey are common across multiple dispute types. If we can design each of them to be extendable and interoperable modules, it should be possible for us to adapt and deploy them across a wide range of different dispute types as needed.

Taking ‘dispute type’ as a unit of change has worked well for transforming the justice system in the past. Efforts in the UK and India to transform ‘traffic penalty disputes’ have been successful. The Traffic Penalty Tribunal in the UK serves as a global benchmark for transformed resolution processes, allowing parties to upload digital evidence and asynchronously communicate. 

Also read: ‘Not a matter of choice’: Supreme Court asks Indian judiciary, tribunals to welcome modern technology, e-filing

Since it sets time limits for each process, 90% of all its appeals progress to a decision without the need for a hearing, and 57% of its cases are closed within 15 days. In India, the concept of ‘virtual courts challans’ has enabled a majority of cases to be settled at the summons stage without litigants having to go to court.

The online dispute resolution (ODR) movement also gained momentum when it used ‘dispute type’ as its unit of change. In the US, ODR providers first focused on e-commerce disputes before extending it to family and other disputes. 

In India, the early providers of ODR focused on unsecured loan disputes (involving personal loans and credit cards), as a result of which over 110,000 unsecured loan disputes with a total claim amount of more than 2,000 crore have been referred to ODR in the past two-three years. Over 65,000 awards have been passed via online arbitration and 10,000 plus settlements have been made in online mediation, with an average resolution time of 60 days.

We don’t need a faster caterpillar, we need a butterfly—a complete transformation of our dispute resolution ecosystem. This is not just desirable, but essential to tackle the mounting backlog of cases in Indian courts. More importantly, this transformation is necessary to ensure that the formal dispute resolution systems that we currently rely on continue to remain relevant in a rapidly changing world.

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