Access to justice is a fundamental right and yet it remains one of the most challenging goals for India to achieve. After some introspection, and a lot of research, I realised that the greatest barrier to it is access to comprehensive legal information.
Legal information consists of the law in force – the acts, rules, regulations, notifications – and case laws. Case laws are the many decisions of various courts, which are tasked with interpreting the law in force. While accessing and understanding these bits of data may not be a small task, comprehending might be an even greater challenge.
The Direct Tax Regime
Let’s take the example of the enforcement of the direct tax laws and understand how individuals and businesses deal with the legal complexity.
The Rule Book
The laws relating to income tax are complex to start with, and are frequently amended. The law is available in English as are the cases, consisting of 3 Acts, 25 Rules, 31 Schemes, numerous notifications, circulars, forms and schedules, and over one lakh cases.
The Terrain of Cases
First some quick stats:
If you receive a notice from the tax department, there is no clear way to identify what will be nature of the proceeding, how long it will take and what are your chances. Further, even to understand the document, one needs to first identify an expert and then trust their guidance on the subject.
The discovery of expertise amongst a sea of lawyers and chartered accountants is itself a difficult task, especially if your questions are answered either with assurances or anecdotes. Also, you may only call upon lawyers and experts when faced with a question/dispute, they aren’t a constant support for reminding you about your legal obligations.
What we the taxpayers in India therefore need are interlocutors who will be able to reach us in the language that we understand, while simplifying the complexity. The availability of technology has created efficient classes of interlocutors, for example the ubiquitous web-based platforms that we see in almost every field from cabs to food delivery. This form of interlocution can significantly bring down cost and effort borne by individuals and businesses in ensuring compliance with the tax laws.
We live in interesting times, the youth of India, the flag-bearers of technology are all set to help out in this transformation. The question is what role can the State play in facilitating the transformation of India’s justice system?
The simplest and probably smartest way to partner with the possible interlocutors, is providing them with the information in an easy to access fashion – that’s all! Uniform formats, documentation, hooks are technologically feasible and low-cost measures that the government and the judiciary can adopt, which can probably lead to the proverbial giant leap.
The integration of technology in all aspects of day to day life, including the legal system is inevitable. This will increase access to justice manifold and democratize law.
(Written by Dipankar Bandyopadhyay, Partner @ Verus & Founder @ Riverus)