Inching towards an efficient Justice Delivery System with ODR
Change is the only phenomenon that persists in life yet most of us resist it and shy away for as long as possible. That is how the human psyche works. We tend to continue finding comfort in old familiar ways until we are coaxed into embracing change. And often it is observed that accepting change unlocks new unexplored avenues of growth. Something similar happened with the adoption of Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) by the Indian judicial system.
Supreme Court established an e-Committee in 2005 to plan the implementation of information and communication technology (ICT) in the Judiciary. More than a decade went by with very little progress on this front until the Indian Judiciary had to embrace the idea of offering citizens easy and continued access to justice through ODR during the standstill caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. After that, NITI Ayog pushed for ODR by releasing ‘The ODR Policy Plan for India’ in 2021 and public institutions like RBI and SEBI advocated to strengthen the grievance redressal system with ODR.
The concept of ODR was introduced into the Indian judicial system as early as 2006 when the National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI) adopted .In Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (INDRP). The policy dictated dispute resolution based on written complaints submitted online regarding registration and use of .in Domain Name. The procedure provided an effective way for an out-of-court settlement. Disputes got resolved by an assigned arbitrator without the claimant being present.
The ODR landscape witnessed a little sporadic progress after 2006 as a few significant initiatives were taken by Government Ministries and departments to push for ODR integration into the system like the establishment of the Online Consumer Mediation Centre (OCMC) by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru in 2016 and the launch of SAMADHAAN portal to address delay of payment disputes involving Micro and Small Enterprises by the Ministry of MSME in 2018. Despite being a time-saving and cost-effective measure, ODR could not gather the necessary momentum to become the preferred means of dispute resolution.
Indian government launched the Digital India campaign in 2015. Sectors like Education and training, travel and tourism, and banking and finance got digitalized sooner. The digital world gave people a chance to surpass the limits of the physical world and get connected to each other in a manner that was impossible before. As the number of digital interactions and transactions increased so did the number of disputes. The judicial system already burdened with unresolved disputes had to accommodate additional disputes stemming from the digital world. Disputes were bound to outpace resolutions without a technology-infused effective mechanism in place. In 2019, the recommendation of the Nandan Nilekani-led High-Level Committee on Deepening of Digital Payments established by the RBI to resolve digital payment disputes formally laid the foundation of an ODR system.
Amid the innovation-centric entrepreneurial environment in the country technologists, legal experts, and social and business leaders together launched E-Alternate Dispute Resolution (E-ADR) Challenge in 2019. The objective of this challenge was to welcome innovation to the field of law and build an ADR platform that could accelerate the process of dispute resolution with the help of advanced technology. The enterprise worked as an igniting agent and started the process of building an ODR start-up ecosystem throughout the country.
In February 2020 the Government of India launched the Vivaad se Vishwas scheme to efficiently resolve tax disputes through ODR. The country’s legal structure was slowly warming up to the idea of speeding up dispute resolution through ODR when COVID-19 stalled the world. Judiciary was already burdened with pending cases, COVID restriction worsened the situation even further. Given the urgency of the situation in June 2020, NITI Aayog, in association with Agami and Omidyar Network India, brought together senior judges of the Supreme Court, secretaries from significant government ministries, industry leaders and legal experts through a virtual meeting to explore ODR as an auxiliary to the traditional judicial system in India.
Next month NITI Aayog established a committee under the chairmanship of Justice (Retd.) A K Sikri to scale up the use of ODR in India. The Chhattisgarh High Court and the State Legal Services Authority conducted the first virtual Lok Adalat and provided conciliation services through video conferencing in the same month. Other states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh also followed suit of resolving disputes online. It has been only 2 years since the first Lok Adalat was held online and thousands of disputes worth crores of money have already been settled. Clearly, Online Lok Adalats held with the assistance of ODR platforms are providing citizens easy access to justice besides saving them money, time, and effort to make rounds of courts to get a matter resolved.
In April 2021, NITI Ayog launched an ODR handbook to invite business leaders to adopt ODR and resolve disputes outside courts by accessing negotiation, mediation, and arbitration in a digital space. Supreme Court Judge Justice DY Chandrachud called the handbook a watershed document that will revolutionize dispute resolution in India.
In November 2021, the committee under the chairmanship of Justice (Retd.) A.K. Sikri released its report titled 'Designing the Future of Dispute Resolution - The ODR Policy Plan for India'. The report came up with an elaborate action plan to incorporate ODR into the Indian judicial system in a phased manner while underlining the possibility of data-driven development of ODR playing a crucial role in promoting legal health, dispute avoidance, and dispute containment in the country.
Following the recommendation of the report to adopt the ODR framework in Government departments and ministries, SEBI is now in the process of utilizing the ODR mechanism to save costs, fasten the redressal mechanism and provide convenient modes of grievance redressal to parties of a dispute. The effective use of ODR mechanism may help SEBI reform the Market Infrastructure Institution (MII) administered grievance redressal mechanism. ODR will garner wider acceptance among other government bodies if SEBI succeeds in strengthening the existing complaint resolution procedure with the new mechanism.
Today several ODR start-ups are bringing skilled professionals, businesses, and customers on a single platform for resolving disputes in a faster and more efficacious manner. India is the world’s fifth-largest economy, trying to leverage the energy and enthusiasm of its young generation. Speedier hassle-free resolutions of disputes through ODR will help the youth maintain their momentum to grow, keep pushing limits to expand more and more and build trust with customers and partners.
Although ODR is still in the nascent stage in India, it reached the threshold of being noticed for its immense potential by the legal community during the pandemic. The journey of mainstreaming ODR might be long but its future certainly seems promising as the mechanism offers a win-win situation to both, the parties seeking resolution as well as dispute resolution professionals while unburdening the load of the Indian Judiciary.