How do you seek justice when you don’t understand your legal rights? How do you learn about your legal rights when you live in a poor, remote community miles from the nearest lawyer?
The people of Northern India’s rural heartland have been given a potential answer to these fundamental questions. A new initiative is designed to bring them face-to-face with the legal minds previously unreachable.
Through the use of video conferencing, the Indian government is setting up live chat online legal advice services that will make use of rural community centers to begin to educate and advocate for the legally isolated.
It’s part of India’s digital revolution, and it could empower an entire nation.
India’s Online Legal Advice Service Is Launched
The Tele-Law initiative was formally launched in mid-June, with phase one to link 500 community service centers in villages in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar with handpicked legal experts in the states’ capitals. Eventually, another 500 villages will be brought online as the program expands across the country. The system has been partly modeled on live legal chat services in action in South Korea and the U.S.
The national government is also urging leading legal thinkers to provide their services for free. The difference this accessible and affordable advice and support could make to the lives of people previously cut off such services is immense. In a way, it’s like they are being granted social justice rights and entitlements for the first time.
It’s especially important for women, children, the elderly, low-income earners, and people of low social standing among India’s rigid social systems. These people will be given priority access to the new service, and may learn about freedom of information, labor laws, land rights, and more, for the first time.
And the technology behind such empowerment is no more advanced than a Skype call.
India’s Digital Revolution Makes Online Legal Advice Possible
India is currently undergoing a digital revolution. As part of the Digital India program, the government–with the help of Silicon Valley giants who’ve developed Skype Lite for countries like India–is spreading the power of the internet across the country. This includes the mammoth task of rolling out fiber optic broadband connections to around 250,000 local government areas, and bringing mobile phone coverage to every village.
That infrastructure carries with it the opportunity to complete social empowerment initiatives like the tele-law setup. Once the community centers are online, local women will be trained as paralegals to act as go-betweens to help villagers access and understand their newfound legal aid.
It takes just a webcam, a computer to plug it into, and a connection to a free video conferencing service like Skype to place for a remote village to connect with a whole new world. Even the current average India connection, which barely ranks inside the world’s top 100, is sufficient to carry a viable video call and allow the exchange of important legal documents or pieces of supporting evidence such as photos and videos through a messaging service.
As the connections improve, large-scale group conversations across several destinations will be made possible, along with extras like HD visuals.
India is already using video conferencing in its courtrooms, but opening up internet access to remote areas could let villagers testify or argue an entire case without racking up previously insurmountable travel expenses. It could provide the victims of domestic and criminal violence a means to seek help, and help ensure women and children understand their rights in cases of divorce or family breakdown.
Universal accessibility to the law is what could empower the whole nation.
Legal Rights Delivered by Video Conference
In theory, once the tele-law project is up and running, each of India’s 1.3 billion citizens will have equal access to the law. Obviously, wealth and social standing will leave some more equal than others, but everyone should be able to get a better understanding of their rights.
A farmer in a rural area in a dispute with a neighbor over a boundary fence can find out the legal strength of their case by visiting a local tele-law community center and taking the matter up with an expert in property law.
Similarly, the workers on the farms could consult with labor law experts to find out just how long a day they’re legally expected to work, and how much they should be paid.
India, like any other country, will have its tyrants and its rogues who thrive when the law isn’t looking. But basic video conferencing technology and the power to be heard by experts in the law is a way to fight that by giving everyday citizens a way to understand and protect their rights.