“Being woman is one of the most beautiful creations of God which is unchallenged till date” – Ruchi Khatlawala Pandya, Partner at Little & Co.
Even after 75 years of independence, man in the street still fears the two quintessential pillars of justice, whom they love to call in their language, “Kala coat wala (Advocates/Lawyers) and khaki dress wala (Police)”. Why do they fear the two? The GDP of our country is USD 2100, which is considered poor. In such circumstances, it becomes next to impossible for the common man to afford qualified lawyers, who charge exorbitant fees. Adding to their worries, rampant corruption in the police department stops them from approaching any police personnel. Ultimately, they are left bereft of justice. This doesn’t end here. Whenever a culprit comes from rich background, they use their wealth to hire the best lawyer possible who can easily manoeuvre with British-era laws.
India has thousands of Central & State laws most of which were passed during the British era. While many obsolete laws were repealed in recent years, some still exist in the statute books. This causes delay in getting justice or many times they don’t even get justice due to the misuse of money and power by influential people. “Justice delayed is justice denied”, we have become accustomed to hearing this over and again but we hardly get to see anything substantial happening on ground to ensure justice in minimum time possible. “Taarikh pe taarikh”, a famous dialogue from the movie Damini pointed towards the lacklustre attitude of our judiciary way back in 1993.
It’s a matter of debate as to how much our judiciary progressed in terms of providing justice to the victims. Recently, we got a chance to interview Ruchi Khatlawala Pandya, who is one of the partners at Little & Co. — one of the oldest law firms in India. Established in the year 1856, Little & Co. is the prestigious law firm of India known for its brilliant and competent team of lawyers. Among those, Ruchi is known for her impeccable acumen and subject matter expertise. She has always shown her inclination towards working for the marginalized and downtrodden people.
Emphasis on the need to educate people
According to Ruchi, certain sections of our country even today are denied access to clean drinking water and have little means of food and shelter. The denial of these basic rights itself, renders all talks of ensuring justice to these poor classes. Absolutely, we are spaces behind in this segment where the fundamentals of livelihood are not extended to the people of a country. We are missing in the very basic of human rights i.e., illiteracy, child labour, malnutrition, exploitation and more.
These are the minimum ‘costs’ of living and we as one of the largest democracies of the world is unable to extend that to its people. “Ensuring justice to their ‘cases’ is much later, primarily let’s get together and ensure a decent livelihood for these folks through lawful means – education opportunities leading to gainful employment is a rudimentary essential to every individual of our country”, Ruchi says while emphasising on the need to educate poor people. “Once these preliminaries are in place, corruption levels themselves can be fought through as rights would be better known and people will be better equipped to handle themselves”, she continues.
It is next to impossible for the common man to afford qualified lawyers these days. Even Ruchi is of the same view. Traditionally, legal profession was one of the most noble professions and lawyers were not expected to charge fees but whatever client offered was to be accepted gracefully, for services rendered. Times and concept changed which evolved legal profession into a high-status business.
Ruchi believes technology can play a vital role in cleaning this mess. “Technology does not replace an attorney, but it can help in low-cost services that can be offered”. Online service reduces out of pocket expenses and also ensures wastage of resources, unnecessary usage of man-power and other overheads is avoided.
There is one more problem with our system. Our system has one huge burden on litigants-filing of court fees. This becomes a bigger challenge for mid-size litigants or for that matter, for low-income group litigants. “We have actually experienced situations where the claim amount is comparatively smaller than the actual court fees which deters litigants from approaching court for justice they deserve”, explains Ruchi. This too should be more affordable and valuable.
Increase Free Legal Aid Programmes
Ruchi comes up with a solution to this issue. She says that Legal Aid funds/programmes should be provided by the Union and State govt. Non-profit organisations should also provide free legal services to low-income people. Depending on the situation/case- a variety of strategies can be implied to offer free legal advice or assistance (partly free consultations can be provided by phone or videoconference).
Besides, there are a whole lot of British-era laws that make it tough for victims and their lawyers to get justice in a time-bound manner. Indian Prime Minister addressed the nation on the British-era redundant laws making the judiciary slow and cumbersome. More than 1,200 redundant Acts have been scrapped in last 3 years. 1,824 or more have been identified for repeal. For instance, a 200-year-old law allowed the British monarch to review decisions of all Indian courts. But this act is now a history. Some time ago, under the Indian Aircraft Act, 1934, kites were also defined as aircraft and one needed to obtain a permit to fly the same as required for an aeroplane.
A myriad other law ranging from taxation and labour law to civil liberties were also tackled. The most famous one is the Ganges Tolls Act, 1867 which lays down that the toll levied on boats plying the Ganges River shall not accede 12 annas. The most hilarious aspect is – today we don’t even have anna as a currency in our country.
Another classic example is Salt Cess Act, 1953 which was repealed in 2016. The Act was passed for levying tax on salt in order to meet the expenses incurred on salt organization maintained by the government. However, over the years, it was observed that the cost of collecting the cess alone was more than the cess collected which was indeed a huge burden on the citizens of India and government itself.
Ensuring justice to the underprivileged
Understanding the nuances and complexities of our legal system, Ruchi has been instrumental in helping poor get justice. She has taken many steps to ensure justice to the underprivileged. “Honestly, we try as much as possible from our end to help those who genuinely need legal aid but cannot afford the legal fees/costs. We definitely do quite a lot of pro-bono work which at times does boomerang but we at Little, are conventional and belong to old school who believe in one principle no good deeds go waste, they come back in some form to us or our generation next”, she asserts.
She believes our system can do a lot of things to safeguard the rights of its citizens considering they don’t have to shell out money unnecessarily to get justice. The law should clearly state and express the repercussions of violating human rights. The system can mobilize and make people aware of their rights and also allow any victim of human rights violations to face the law and seek justice, at any point in time. According to her, the system should support any individual who stands up against discrimination, for the betterment of our society.
The system should ascertain, without bias, that every person is equal before the law and is entitled to equal protection of law without any discrimination – this, regardless of one’s status in society and other entitlements. Work towards assuring the people in society of the faith they can repose in an independent and impartial court of law.
All the three powers such as, the Constitution, the judiciary and the police, must work as one unit to take measures to ensure no individual has to unnecessarily shell out money to get justice for receiving his/her fundamental human rights. A simple step in the right direction, at nascent stage itself, would be to organize these human right sessions in private and public schools and colleges as well as corporates organisations so that people of the country are aware of their ‘fundamental rights and duties’ from an early stage, to help them get justice at various levels in life.
Speedy trial and resolutions need of the hour
According to Ruchi, the system can also propagate through social media and various advertising means the essential human rights matters to make citizens aware (and remind them) of their ‘basics’ in life i.e., gender equality, freedom of expression, humility, non-discrimination etc.
Public personalities can be encouraged to appear on media channels to promote respect for human rights. Renowned Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie utilized her time for humanitarian work when she became the Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations spreading messages on violence against children and women. Similarly, in India, former actress Celina Jaitley raises voice for women and children’s health, and rehabilitation of sex workers in India. Likewise, actress Vidya Balan actively supports the cause of the ‘basics’ – like clean drinking water and sanitation campaigns. Balan also campaigned for the ‘Child in Need’ institute.
Touching upon the Nirbhaya case that shook the entire nation, Ruchi talked about the probable factors that led to delay in the justice and why it took eight years to hang the perpetrators. “A number of factors can be playing in this regard for Justice to be delayed. Speedy trial and resolutions, even today are a difficult task”, says Ruchi. Today there are about close to 3 crore cases pending in the district and subordinate courts and around 58 lakh cases in the various Hon’ble High Courts (data per July 2021) and more than 79, 000 cases in the Hon’ble Supreme court.
The hopelessly inadequate number of experienced judges is one of the crucial factors. There are inadequate number of courts in the country. Lack of transparency in cases. Problems with FIR’s not being lodged in time, lack of accuracy in lodging precise cause of action, total disconnect between the system-people and authorities. Period of settlement of claims is never ending due to huge backlog and paucity of time. Ratio of judges to cases is absolutely shocking. There is a lack of accurate system of filling papers and following old age procedures, which definitely needs a face-lift. Poor infrastructure and facilities in courts including technological infrastructure is also one of the major reasons.
Ruchi advocates introducing online systems for filing cases, returns, documents. Also, judiciary can conduct proceedings for cases like chamber matters, party in person issues as they will not eat into court time and will avoid procedural delays. Although pandemic did introduce several technological innovations for court proceedings, lot more needs to be engraved for efficient and quicker judicial process for Gen “X” if I may say so.
Striking a chord with the new practices
Even after a thought-provoking movie like Damini showcasing the lacklustre attitude of judiciary, we have not seen much happening on ground to reduce the millions of cases pending. There are many factors which contribute to extensive delay and long-haul pending cases. At times the key eye-witness is unavailable. Inability to devote the required amount of time to the particular case. Corruption is from the root to top level in our system which gives criminals and their backbones much more than needed comfort level along with most undeserved freedom. It may take several months to get the court date and then only given few limited days to cross examine, prepare evidence etc. which more often than not is never enough. It’s a perfect example of lack of uniformity and streamlined framework of our system which at times is beyond painful.
Talking about the effect of COVID-19 on her firm and legal arena as a whole, Ruchi is of the view that legal sector is one of the many traditional industries where newer ways of working do not always find a comfortable fit. One downside is, many law firms were and are slow to react to the latest workplace innovations in the technology space – home working was not a total feasible option for most firms leading to a hit on client services. However, pandemic has taught a lot to many, including law firms!
Ongoing cases were suddenly hit and proceedings, filings and pricing alterations became chaotic. Timing and taking the ongoing cases further suddenly met with complex challenges and scrutiny because of the pandemic. The biggest hit came in the reduction of work which impacted the cash flows, revenue and hence profitability. The upside was, many faced large scale roll out of flexible working hours in their workforce – an absolute ‘first’ in many cases. Another upside was the remote model allowed to recruit the best in the team, no matter where they were based. That is a real advantage when it comes to the extensive portfolio of legal services firms offer to their clients.
Many firms considered new pricing models that offered clients greater cost certainty by capping fees or by implementing success-fee structures which were well received by clients. Little & Co. has struck a chord with new practices and is back to normalcy.
Work culture and work ethics extremely strong and grounded
Despite being one of the oldest and most traditional firms in the country, the work culture and work ethics at Little & Co. are extremely strong and grounded. But with changing times, the firm too has to adopt to new practices while striking a perfect balance with its traditional approach and modern outlook. As a responsible partner of the firm, Ruchi ensures the firm’s visibility and presence is felt at most relevant places and platforms. “It’s important for us to survive the competition while we accept newer challenges which helps us keep ourselves up-float.”
Besides being a brilliant lawyer, she is a loving mother as well. She doesn’t let her professional life barge into her personal life. She is a hands-on mother to her 9-year-old daughter, Vyana Panyda and totally dedicated to her upbringing. She gives in her 100 per cent to strike a valuable balance between work, daughter, family life and social circuit. Vyana, for her, is her reflection and pride. Her growing years and nurturing her upbringing are Ruchi’s utmost priority.
On professional front, her father–Ajay Khatlawala who is the senior most and co-managing partner of the firm– has always given her the boost to rise up the ladder with full conviction, honesty, dedication and passion. On personal front, her mother– Daksha Khatlawala who is a very strong and pious woman—has been a big source of inspiration. Like her mother, Ruchi too believes in woman’s strength, courage and obsession to grow in every aspect of life because according to her, there is nothing impossible for any woman in this world. According to her mother, if a woman can give birth to a new life from within her, she can achieve anything in this universe. Woman, according to her, is the strongest gender created by almighty.
Being woman is one of the most beautiful creations of God which is unchallenged till date. Throughout her journey, she has focussed on a simple modus operandi–work hard, be honest to yourself and your profession, never give up on your principles you grew up with. Lastly, teachings of parents can never go wrong. “I am a strong believer in God and he is my ultimate strength and saviour. Without him, I am incomplete.”