Technology for justice

A TIMELY discussion titled Technology for Justice Forum recently took place in the capital, spearheading a much-needed discussion on how technology could harness justice. A wide array of stakeholders from across the justice and technology sectors, including senior judges, lawyers, civil society, technology companies, technology experts, engineers, students, and investors attended.

To determine how technology can assist justice, a range of questions come to mind that require careful exploration. Who are the main stakeholders in the justice system? Can technology bridge the gap between access and the dispensation of justice? How can technology be used to best improve each step of justice dispensation? What are previous models that can be used and improved? Are laws related to technology fair and effective? How can investigation be improved using technology? What are the restrictions and challenges and how best can they be solved?

The most important stakeholders in the justice system are the citizens, and ensuring that they have access to justice is the most important challenge that needs to be overcome. In the status quo, we see that accessing justice in the first place is the problem. Police and other law-enforcement agencies are seen as hostile, especially for the majority of the underprivileged population.

In the Farishta kidnapping and murder case in Islamabad, the father and brother were made to clean the police station when they had gone to file a complaint about the child being missing. For women, accessing justice is all the more challenging. Character shaming and incredulity are everyday challenges that discourage them from approaching law enforcement. Bribery is another major challenge that citizens face when dealing with the law-enforcement and justice system.

Perhaps technology can empower citizens to hold the law-enforcement system accountable. The Punjab Model of Governance pioneered by bureaucrat Zubair Bhatti in Jhang functions on a simple model whereby citizens who visit a government office for anything register their phone numbers and get a call later to determine if they were asked for extra payment and if they are satisfied with the services provided at the office. Perhaps a similar exercise for police stations will go far in improving their functioning.

At the forum, mobile phone applications that connect lawyers with citizens in search of a lawyer were unveiled. This is an important way to democratise the search for lawyers as opposed to relying only on word-of-mouth referrals. However, it is important to consider how those who cannot read or write and spend money on lawyers can be connected to pro bono lawyers without being taken advantage of. This is what innovators should be spending most of their time thinking about.

Another major issue that citizens in this country face is the inefficiency of state prosecutors and the court system. Using technology for the attendance record of public prosecutors will go a long way, as the absence of state prosecutors in cases that are cognisable and non-compoundable which requires the state to be a party causes delays.

Digitisation of investigation files and court records is another important area in which the justice system can be made efficient through the use of technology. In a harassment case in Karachi, the evidence file of a complainant went missing for more than two years due to the negligence of the FIA, causing a critical delay in the progress of the case. The file was magically recovered when the complainant filed a complaint with the high court about her file going missing. No citizen should have to endure so many struggles, especially if they are the aggrieved party.

Further, setting up of independent forensic laboratories for investigation of data is also very important, as the current high volume dealt by a just a handful of forensic labs causes unnecessary delays in the dispensation of justice.

The introduction of e-courts by the Supreme Court of Pakistan where cases can be heard via video link is a welcome addition to the current setup where complainants and witnesses have to bear the cost of travel and stay for hearings, something that otherwise deters them from using the justice system. Similar arrangements for recording witness statements via video will also help the cause of justice.

Whereas technology can be an important enabler in accessing and dispensing justice, it is essential that the limitations of technology be kept in mind when glamorising it or relying on it too much. Whereas it would be helpful for judges, as announced by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, to use artificial intelligence to access previous precedents and case law on specific cases, letting AI make a decision based on computed facts may be a bit of a stretch. The nuances of each case should not be underrated.

Another area is the domain of technology-related laws. It is important that the laws are fair and respect fundamental constitutional rights, and that they provide sufficient protections to citizens rather than demonising their use of technology to exercise rights. Moreover, the laws must not be abused by the state against dissidents and whistleblowers.

The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, while protecting citizens, also makes it legal for citizens to file criminal defamation complaints that often deter aggrieved parties from voicing complaints related to harassment as Section 20 of Peca does, and Section 37 that empowers the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to block any content on the internet. The latest Islamabad High Court judgement asking the authority to offer a hearing to administrators of the websites that are being blocked is a welcome step in terms of due process enforcement. But the blocking of content is ineffective as the YouTube ban demonstrated, and hence an exercise in futility. These sections need to go.

Lastly, it is high time for parliament to introduce a data protection and privacy law so that all the data and information processed in the courts, investigation agencies, police, companies, and applications is protected and not misused. Without such protections, functioning in an anarchic space where data is traded for money is a huge risk that must be mitigated and dealt with through the law.

This article was origionally published in Dawn News.

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