Wednesday, 28 January 2015

A Note on Law in India

A friend recalled something a friend of his had said on hearing how Joseph K, the protagonist of Kafka’s The Trial, waited outside the court not knowing what his crime is: “Why? Didn’t he know anyone inside?!” This anecdote is of course more than an anecdote. 

Law is not a source of paranoia about the loss of freedom in India. Nor is it a primary source of reassurance about why order exists in India. Indeed, law more commonly seems a pliable phenomenon: I know someone who knows someone who knows someone who can get it to work (or not work).  And, people also get law to behave the way it is expected to.  

Our relationship with modern law couldn’t not have been complex.

In the West, the ideals of citizenship – civil, political and social – were got from the state as an outcome of social struggle and revolution that wished to end the arbitrary power of monarchy and the church and put a democracy in place. It has been 200 years since this process began there.

The Indian state, as we know, embraced the constitutional ideals of citizenship without demands for them from below. The last six decades have been a period where these ideals have tried to find anchor in the minds of people. The state has done its bit in this regard. The news media, schools, political parties, and social movements have also contributed to making Indians see themselves as citizens above everything else.  Realities of brute power and vested interests have of course tried to subvert this process.  The diverse religious traditions and moral philosophies of Indian civilization, whose visions of freedom and equality are at odds with those embodied in the constitution have also existed alongside to provide meaning to social existence.  They have held out their own standards of reasonableness and of acceptable and unacceptable conduct.

Gandhi of course doubted the indispensability of lawyers for society and affirmed his faith in negotiating settlements outside the route of litigation.  In his writings on village reconstruction, Tagore had felt that the village communities could manage local disputes without the necessity of the police or the courts.  Gandhi and Tagore represent the continuing attractions of the desire to arrive at settlements outside courts. The ideals of community life that they espoused still matter in public life: the ideal of self-sacrifice, whereby an individual subordinates his or her interest for the sake of the community’s welfare, is very strong.  Or, the ideal of tolerance which lets people overlook faults, small or big, is also key to understand why so many city residents reconcile to live with their neighbours’ bye-law violations or not bother to report a dented bumper to the police.  The pain of navigating the police and the courts can explain these only to an extent.

The stark power realities that let the powerful to use and disregard law as and when they please has not meant a popular cynicism towards law.  Ambedkar and a whole gamut of distinguished political and social activists have attempted to build inspiration towards law as an instrument of social justice and political freedom. Legal activists continue to engage the courts as if vulnerable citizens mattered and gain victories for democracy. And, even if led by considerations by TRPs, media’s vigilante activism towards the legal misconduct of the government machinery, political parties and, on occasion, corporate companies, is high.  Despite the absurdly high rates of pendency, law still holds out a way for the affected.

We will have to start looking closely at how the various imaginations of law, civility, and equality are working around us.  Instead of viewing liberalism as sacrosanct and the other imaginations of law as illiberal and non-modern, a responsible political task will be to see how liberalism can be challenged, enriched and re-imagined by other ideas of equality and freedom.  And keep the future open.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Method to the Madness

Chetan Bhagat clearly had it all wrong. He thought that two states were problematic. What then, would he say of twenty four?

Twenty four states, two thousand five hundred and fifty three unique values, all to be sorted into a 290 x 24 matrix. This was the December that Shiva and I faced. I’m happy to say we are still standing at the end of it all, armed with a notebook full of pertinent observations to boot. Shiva gave you his take on the exercise last week, so to follow up, here I am with my thoughts.To quickly recap, the Rule of Law project (henceforth the ROLP) is collating a database of all the cases pending before the higher judiciary of this country. We seek to make the ROLP database accessible to the legal fraternity, government bodies, independent researchers and most importantly the general public. The database will contain the case numbers of pending cases. As Kavya has mentioned earlier, these unique case numbers are made up of a case type abbreviation, a number and a year.

To give an example, in the case number WP12345/2006, WP stands for Writ Petition, 12345 is the number and 2006 is the year. What’s that you say? That sounds easy enough? Well my friends, that’s merely the tip of the iceberg. Remember that number we mentioned earlier, a certain two thousand five hundred and fifty three? That is the collective number of case types found in the nomenclature systems of twenty four High Courts across India. Not only do we have the abbreviation WP, we have CP and OP, WA and WTC, and every permutation and combination in between.

For us at the ROLP, it was crucial that we created some sort of key or index for these case types. If lawyers themselves did not know case types, corresponding or otherwise, in states where they did not practice, what hope was there for an ordinary Ram who wanted to do some research on our database? It was at this juncture that Kishore uttered those four words, the ones which filled our mails, our thoughts, our talks and at times our dreams for the next three weeks. ‘Case Type Standardization Table’, or as I like to say, the method to the madness.

We got to work at once. The first stumbling block was waiting for us, right by the start sign. There were no readymade list of case types, each set had to be painstakingly listed out from a case status page, available on the website of the respective parent High Court. At the end of two days, with our aggregated table in front of us, Shiva and I were stupefied by the numbers we were dealing with.
Calmness came in the form of Harish, who told us to take it slow and steady. So we started off, choosing Bombay as our reference court (it had the most case types – 289) and splitting the remaining twenty three courts between us. The process we followed was to match each High Court’s set with the Bombay list.  Day one was rather traumatic. Our conversation was filled with exasperated questions ‘How can Bombay not have a Death Reference?’  or ‘Where do I put Contempt Appeal, under contempt cases or appeals?’. However, it did get easier, and we got better.

In a week we knew all the facts off the top of our head, how many case types each High Court had, which court had a specific type of case, which didn’t, we had our own little KBC[1] going on. In a couple of weeks we had finished the process of matching to Bombay, and heaved a sigh of relief. There was still more to come, with what I call ‘un-matchables’, case types that we could not correlate with the Bombay list. So we rounded up all the un-matchables, categorized and matched them amongst each other and added another hundred odd case types to the Bombay list.

There you had it, three hundred and eighty seven case types. They filled in Column ‘A’ of the (in)famous 'Case Type Standardization Table’. We categorized them broadly as part of the exercise, coming up with a hundred categories they could be sorted into. All of a sudden, we were finished.

There is clearly lots to take away from the operation we carried out. It was exhilarating to work on a pioneering effort like this, and to create a key that has not been publicly available before. The flipside was the bewilderment as to why there is no uniformity in the system. To give you an idea, at the Supreme Court level, which is the only place cases from the High Courts can go for appeal and is common to all, there are just twenty nine[2] distinct case types. How does two thousand five hundred magically morph to twenty nine?

The level of variance that we have in case types at the judiciary is confounding. To draw parallels with the other two arms of the government, it would be as if we had vastly inconsistent state rules under a central legislation or varied departments and officers under each state executive.

Perhaps even more perplexing than the variance itself, was the fact that the variance was variant. What I mean by this is that there was:
  •  Variance in Type – There were case types that featured on a particular High Court list, that were nowhere to be found on another list. 
  • Variance in Form – Writ Petition was not given the same name across lists, nor were its sub categories uniformly named. Like this there were many cases with numerous nicknames and alibis. 
  • Variance in Local Flavour – There was a clear local flavour to each list, case types unique to each would show up. For example Bombay had numerous case types dealing with Parsi Cases, and Kerala had a number of Dewaswom Board related case types. 
  • Variance in Level of Classification – While the High Courts of Bombay and Jharkhand both had excellent classification, the former list had 289 entries whereas the latter had just 59 entries. So there was huge contrast in the level of detail each High Court showed.
  • Duality – There were case types that could clearly fit well into two separate categories/ case types, but were placed under one type as there was no cross referencing between types.
There you have it, our Case Type Standardization Saga. Right now we are four weeks from where we started and have completed our first Case Type Standardization Table, the first of its kind in this sphere. We’ve found a method to the madness, and next up, hope to render the variance invariant. 

[1] Kaun Banega Crorepati – The Indian television game show
[2] . Refer page 24 of the document for a list of case types that are accepted while making e-filings before the Supreme Court of India. 

Friday, 9 January 2015

The Matchmaking Exercise

As a part of the Rule of Law Project, Ramya and I were assigned the task of doing something which had never been done before. 24 High Courts, about 2000 different case types (each case is classified into a particular type by the Court. For example, a case which deals which contempt is usually classified as a contempt petition. There is a high degree of variance in this nomenclature as different High Courts may assign different names/case types). Standardising these case types across the 24 High Courts in India and coming up with one comprehensive list which would cover all the High Courts. Each of the 24 High Courts have a few common case types and several uncommon ones. This exercise looked to make a single table to see, for example, what a Writ Petition would be named across the 24 High Courts*. Seems manageable? Read on and you will see how this task can make understanding Christopher Nolan’s movies seem simpler.

The task began with extracting the different case types from the websites of the respective High Courts. While the popular High Courts, such as Bombay, Delhi, Madras, Karnataka, Gujrat had the expansions of case types, a few others like Andhra Pradesh, Gauhati, Tripura, Meghalaya did not have the expansions readily. The expanded case types are indispensable in such an exercise as a ‘Co. Pet.’ can be read as a Company Petition as well as a Contempt Petition and an ‘Appl.’ and ‘Apl.’ can be read as an application or as an appeal and a ‘Rev.’ can be read as review as well as a revision.  About 80% of the expansions of case types readily available and about 10% were on a scanned page which had been uploaded as a part of the High Court Rules of the respective states. For the rest of the states, such as Jammu and Kashmir which did not have the case types nor the expansions, we had to visit the cause lists (every court lists out cases which to be heard on that particular day) of those High Courts for about a week daily and extract and expand the case types. While most of the High Courts had the expansions of case types readily and some as a part of the rules, High Courts such as Jammu and Kashmir did not feel the need to put them up anywhere.

After the mammoth exercise of finding the different case types of the 24 High Courts, it was time for the real deal. As Bombay had the highest number of case types, it was chosen as the base list with which the case types of other High Courts would be matched. At this point we noticed some expected similarities as well as many glaring differences in the case types. This trailer showed us that the ride was going to be a super bumpy one. Here are a few instances of the vast variance in the case types of various High Courts.

Variance 1: Let’s take something as simple as a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) to start off with. A few courts decided to have them under the case type of Writ Petitions, the others decided to have a special case type for them, named mostly as ‘PIL’. Some High Courts such as the Bombay High Court went a step further and had a ‘Criminal Public Interest Litigation’ case type as well, other than the ‘Public Interest Litigation’ type.

Variance 2: Some courts had a case type for bail application, many others did not even have a separate case type for bails! While Uttarakhand had first, second, third, fourth, fifth and a sixth case type for bail applications.

Variance 3: While only Calcutta and Bombay had a special case type for BIFR (Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction) cases, none others had a special case type for it.

Variance 4: Orissa had 3 specific case types for Matrimonial related matters [MATA-Matrimonial Cases (Appeals), MATCAS-Matrimonial Case (Suits/Petitions), MATREF-Matrimonial Case (References) and MREF-Matrimonial Reference] while many High Courts did not even have a different case type for matrimonial matters. Gujrat had a special case type for petitions under the Christian Marriage Act and Bombay for Parsi Matrimonial Matters, but none of the other courts reflected anything remotely close.

It was heartening to see that there was uniformity in case types relating to Arbitration, Company and Contempt matters. The entire exercise showed us how incoherent the case types of various High Courts are. This exercise lasted a little over 3 weeks, with myriad calls/mails to members of the legal fraternity all over the country and many disturbing dreams while asleep on the intricacies of the high degree of variance.

Matchmaking is hard, isn’t it?

*For convenience, each High Court has been referred to by the name of the state/city mentioned in its actual name.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Ctrl+C and other stories.

In the process of unfurling our research method at The Rule of Law project it has been important to examine what data can help us frame information that can answer the question of what “delay” and "pendency" really means, outside of the anecdotal narratives that get thrown up both in the media and in reports of and by the courts themselves. If we were to generate statistics on the nature of judicial delay, what would we need to do? 

My fellow travellers and guides Harish and Kishore, a few weeks into letting me roam the lands of literature review, came up with an ingenious solution.

Look to the cause list.

I'm fairly certain, after several months of speaking of cause lists with something like obsession, that the lay person in our country will know little or next to nothing about what a cause list is.

A cause list is produced daily by every court in the country, detailing the case number, the litigants, the lawyers, for the reference of those who are in the process of litigation. This is a public document.

The cause lists, however, are a kind of endlessly disappearing archive of information, since they are put up each day for the use of lawyers and litigants, and removed once their use passes. Beyond a certain amount of time (a week, perhaps a fortnight), these lists get taken off the main website.

A cause list is, on some enquiry, a straightforward document: it tells you which case is heard before which judge on what day. In this, it is very valuable, since each case number that is in process in the courts will necessarily show up at some point in a year, during the various stages of life in the courts. As we said in our last post, there are 44,56,232 pending cases in the High Court. The cause lists will ensure that we are able to capture these cases in our data in the coming year.

And most crucially, what we can capture with this information is the case number itself.

The case number is, for example, WP13457/2004. A Writ Petition, a number, and a year.

A typical cause list contains the following:

·  Case Number
·  Date of Hearing
·  Judge
·  Hall Number
·  Court/Bench
·  Advocates for Petitioner
·  Advocates for Respondent
·  Stage
·  (for eg, Orders, Interlocutory Appeals, Preliminary Hearing.)

With each Case Number, we are able to access the following details:

· Date of Institution

· Date of Disposal in Lower Courts
· Case Status
· Causes of Adjournments.
· Number of Times Listed
· Details of what the case is listed for (for eg. Non-compliance of office objections, etc.)
· District of Filing of Case

How were we going to put this information together, everyday, across 24 High Courts of the country?

A woman's best friend in such a situation is really manual data entry. We started our work by spending up to a week copying and pasting each element of the data available in the cause list into an excel sheet: a case number and all its corresponding details.

There is, for example, no standard format for the digitised PDF of the daily cause list that is put up on a High Court's website. It is typically a type-written document, put together by a clerk, scanned and uploaded on to a High Court's website as a PDF. A document that consists of scanned images of text is inherently inaccessible because the content of the document is images, not searchable text. Sometimes, these PDFs are not scanned images but rendered with html; copy and paste a single line of this into an excel sheet and you will be left with a glorious garble that breaks down the tentative coherence in format effected by that judicial clerk who has compiled the cause list that morning.

Each High Court, too, has different formats for the way a cause list is organised. Each daily cause list typically runs into up to 50 pages, ranging between 800 to 2000 cases before a few judges in a day.

I started with three High Courts: Karnataka, Delhi, and Gujarat. In the case of most cause lists, the process of copy and paste was fairly straightforward, since the PDF allowed for it. However, there were those cause lists whose PDF did not allow for an easy cut and paste of information. What I discovered was that while it took me about an hour and a half to put together details of 250 cases into an excel sheet from a PDF from the Karnataka High Court, it took me about two hours to put together merely 20 cases from a cause list of the Gujarat High Court.

It became quite clear from this exercise that this manual data entry would not only be inordinately time consuming, but that it was necessary for us to begin to understand what a large amount of this data collated could show us about possible inferences.

At this stage, we turned to the data entry elves at a small service provider called Data Con Services. Quite close to Toll Gate in North Bangalore, Data Con services is a small house converted into an office space full of cubicles, populated by young men and women typing away and keying in data, row by laborious row. Having spent some time keying in this information myself, I knew that this work involves a mixture of tedium and close attention.

Our data entry elves were able to collate and compile the daily cause list for four High Courts and managed to put together well organised excel sheets for 20 days of cause lists in the span of two months. By the end of November 2014, we had data for 80,000 cases in hand, done all by the force of pure manual labour.

While our team had spent a few months beginning to understand all the possible ways in which we could use the information in a cause list for our research, Kishore had spent his energy understanding the way the courts organised their data on the High Court websites. This proved to be an inordinately useful two-pronged approach, since our team was able to understand the ins and outs of the information even as softwares were being written to make the data available to us.

For example, our team undertook the task of picking a randomised data set from the Karnataka High Court of October 2014, to trace the date of institution for each case number. This involved another week spent with Ctrl+C, that gloriously simple yet tedious function: feeding in a case number into a High Court website, to trace it backwards and see when that case was instituted, and from which lower court it emerged. This process of tracing date of institution helped us understand that a simple case number points towards several layers of important data. 

It was by this time that softwares that defy the imagination of an ordinary sociologist came into force. Kishore had cracked for us a method that parsed all the data on the High Court websites into clean and crystal clear excelsheets: what had taken us a few months to understand, a software broke down in a matter of mere seconds. 

So it turns out that what we had considered virtually impossible, turns out to be possible. Armed as we are with a fast growing database, we will leave you again, to return later with more stories of our methods, of case numbers and case types and our ever growing, never ending relationship with excel sheets.