On November 19, Justice DY Chandrachud of the Supreme Court of India made a passing comment while hearing a case. “I will tell you something in a lighter vein,” he said. “Instead of wading through the pleadings before us, I thought I will check LiveLaw or other platforms for the documents.”
Chandrachud’s remark was an acknowledgement of the tremendous impact that legal affairs websites have had on court proceedings in India over the past few years. Two publications in particular – LiveLaw and Bar & Bench – stand out for their extensive coverage of court proceedings.
Even though television cameras are banned inside courts, these publications offer updates in near-real time with their live tweeting about proceedings. In addition, they are valued for the speed at which they upload not just court orders and judgments but also the petitions and pleadings of a case – resources that were available, until recently, only to the lawyers in the particular matter.
It isn’t only lawyers and judges who are reading LiveLaw and Bar & Bench.
With hundreds of thousands of social media followers and millions of readers, the two websites have profoundly changed the way in which ordinary people access legal news. LiveLaw and Bar & Bench offer greater transparency and a more nuanced understanding about the working of the courts and their role in society.
Of course, this intense burst of coverage of the courts has its critics. Some people believe that the near real-time coverage of legal proceedings has damaged the court in the eyes of the public.
‘Width and depth’
While India’s various courts started uploading their judgments online around 2010, the exchanges between the lawyer and the judge were rarely available to people beyond the courtoom. Litigants struggled to understand the trajectory even of their own cases.
The two publications have changed the situation for people who can read English. Lay readers now follow the intricacies of important matters as they unfold. Many have realised that even if the functioning of real-life courts isn’t quite as dramatic as the way they are depicted in the movies, the proceedings can often be very compelling.
Following LiveLaw and Bar & Bench has given lay readers greater knowledge about the intricacies of the law. “A client once read a piece and came and asked me several questions,” said a Hyderabad-based lawyer. “He asked why when the cases were identical and was before the same bench, I took adjournment and the other lawyer succeeded in getting an order.”
Lawyers said sometimes litigants bring printouts of orders and judgements from sites and say they have found a precedent. “The client advising the lawyer is not something you encountered in the past frequently,” said one lawyer.
Two High Court judges told Scroll.in that they read LiveLaw or Bar & Bench every morning and evening. “...I think their coverage is much wider than the newspapers,” one of the judges explained.
He said that despite being a judge, it had not been easy to keep tabs on important developments in other courtrooms, other High Courts and the Supreme Court. But that has changed with the phenomenal “width and depth” of coverage on the sites, he said.
Before the boom in legal reporting on the internet, if lawyers read about an important case from the Supreme Court in the press, they still had to wait for weeks for the judgement to be reported in legal journals to understand the matter completely, the High Court judge said.
“You cannot show a newspaper clipping to a judge and ask him to apply the precedent in the case you are arguing,” he said. “The judge will throw you out of the courtroom.”
On these websites, the judge said, he gets not only the happenings in other courtrooms reported word for word, but also a copy of the order or the judgement with the report. “So when I read the news report, I get the gist,” he said. “I can then read the order immediately to see if the reporting is accurate. So I am always ready with the new developments.”
The extensive reportage on courtroom arguments and the access these websites offer to petitions and pleadings gives them the edge. In the past, “unless you knew the lawyers involved in the case personally, there was no chance of getting hold of these documents”, said Divyanshu Rai, a lawyer practising in the Supreme Court. “But now, it is all there on the websites.”
He added: “Now, you get to understand how other lawyers deal with complex subjects in the pleadings and how a judge thinks,” said Rai. “These are all crucial things.”
The long road
Until digital news platforms emerged as strong competitors around 2010, newspapers were the most trusted sources for news from the courts. But because of space constraints, their reports were necessarily brief. Television reported live updates, but barely went beyond the basic outcome of a case.
With the advent of the internet, legal resources began to emerge online, such as India Kanoon in 2007-2008. The site is a free search engine enabled legal database with millions of case laws in its repository.
There were also paid digital legal resources too like SCC Online and Manupatra that help lawyers and judges with their research. These platforms are still invaluable given their comprehensive archives of court judgements.
But LiveLaw, started in 2013, and Bar & Bench, which launched in 2009, have pulled ahead of the pack, impressing readers with the fleetness with which they produced their reports and the breadth and volume of their work.While the legal databases cater primarily to the legal fraternity, the sites are journalistic in nature and target a more general readership.
A legal correspondent of a newspaper said on condition of anonimity that the sites did make some errors in their reporting in the earlier years. But as they have grown, they are have achieved commendable accuracy. “You can safely cite the two websites in your reports,” the reporter said. “Slip-ups are now very rare.”
It has not been easy for LiveLaw and Bar & Bench to gain this level of influence.
The first problem they faced was obtaining access to hearings. To get into the courtrooms at the Supreme Court, visitors need a pass. Newspaper and television reporters got an “accreditation” from the court that allowed them to stand near the benches and report on the proceedings.
But even today, reporters of LiveLaw and Bar & Bench have not been offered accreditation and have to stand near the litigants gallery, further behind “Our application has been pending for years,” said Pallavi Saluja, co-founder of Bar & Bench.
Then there was the question of sources. Whether it was judges or lawyers, most tended to give preference to newspapers over the lesser known websites.
Besides, High Court media rooms were adversarial to newcomers. Newspaper reporters in some High Courts used to band together to decide what to report (and what not to) on a given day. Any violation of this unwritten rule had repercussions for individual reporters, whose access to petitions and orders could informally be cut off.
There was also corruption, with lawyers paying journalists for news coverage.
The two websites have made it easier for fellow legal affairs reporters to cover the courts, especially the young ones who did not have the clout of the veterans.
Users of the sites acknowledge that the live tweeting of proceedings from a range of courts is the innovation that makes these publications stand out.
Murali Krishnan, Editor (Courts) at Bar & Bench, was one of the first legal reporters to use social media in a rigorous way. In 2015, when he began tweeting about interesting exchanges in the courtroom, he realised his posts were widely read.
However, until 2018, reporters were not allowed to take mobile phones into Supreme Court hearings. Krishnan and his colleagues make notes and then tweet when they exited the courtroom. That changed in under Chief Justice Dipak Misra.
Now both LiveLaw and Bar & Bench have more than 300,000 followers each on Twitter.
The real-time reportage was novel for lawyers and the public, certainly but also for judges. Suddenly, every word a judge uttered could ricochet around the internet immediately, sometimes without context.
In August, Justice Arun Mishra said in court that the two websites were reporting proceedings in an “one-sided and incorrect manner”. Some lawyers have also privately noted that live reporting, particularly on social media, allows information to easily be pulled out of context to spark outrage.
When judges ask questions in court, they may do it to seek clarity – and not necessarily to reflect their positions on a case. Yet on social media, these remarks are often taken as the judge’s views.
Manu Sebastian, the managing editor of LiveLaw, argued the site could not be held responsible for motivated misuse of the tweets.
“If you look at our live tweeting, it is a long thread, sometimes hundreds of tweets,” he said. “At the beginning of the thread, we add as much context as possible.”
Both Sebastian and Krishnan of Bar & Bench said the tweets are vetted by their editorial desks before they are published on Twitter.
Since most of journalists who report for the two websites have legal backgrounds, they understand the context of law and the procedure very well.
Krishnan said the live tweets were an accurate reproduction of what the judges and lawyers say in courts. “We are absolutely prohibited as a matter of rule in the newsroom to add opinions in our reporting,” he said.
Another criticism of legal affairs websites is that since they also organise conferences, they pull their punches in interviews and opinion pieces because they cannot afford to annoy senior lawyers and judges who are potential speakers at their events.
Krishnan refuted that charge. “Our opinion pieces I do not think hold back on criticism,” he said.
“Even recently, we did a report on case in which the High Court gave favourable orders to a relative of a judge,” Saluja noted.
Suhrith Parthasarathy, a lawyer from Chennai, said that it wasn’t fair to blame these publications for creating a negative impression about the courts. If the courts do what it is expected of them, that is, to be the institution that is a crucial check on state excesses, their image would improve, he said.
“By and large, the sites have done a great job in making court proceedings transparent,” Parthasarthy said. “They are now very popular.”
Credibility and consistency
Bar & Bench preceded LiveLaw by four years – launching in 2009 as a pioneer of online legal affairs journalism along with other websites like Legally India and Law et al.
It was the brainchild of three friends who had studied at the National Law School in Bengaluru: Shishira Rudrappa, Bipul Mainali and Abhishek Parsheera.
The idea then was to set up a website that would share information about the legal community. “We wanted to capture the emerging trends in the legal profession,” Rudrappa said.
But slowly, they realised that there was a huge open field when it came to reporting on court proceedings. “Look at it this way. The impact of a High Court or the Supreme Court was far greater than say an order of SEBI,” he added, referring to the Securities and Exchange Board of India, which regulates securities and commodities. “But legal news was not getting the kind of attention that it should. If done well, we were sure that legal news was more often than not front page news.”
Among their initial readers were many bankers, given that the site was keenly following news from legal developments in that sector, he said. In 2011, Pallavi Saluja, who now heads the editorial team, joined the website. “I can say her contribution has been pivotal in making us what we are today,” Rudrappa said. Saluja has since been elevated to the position of co-founder,
Rudrappa and the other founders invested their own funds in the website and, given that there was hardly any competition for the kind of work they were doing, the website started to make money very quickly.
“We were cash surplus within months,” Rudrappa said. “By 2012, we became a paid site. This combination of advertisements and subscriptions has continued to date.”
Early on, Saluja set an important rule to ensure the site builds credibility. “If you did not hear it or read it directly, do not report it,” she said.
Initially, it took a bit of work to explain to potential sources what Bar & Bench was. She said networking was key. The conferences and other events that Bar & Bench consistently covered helped with the pubication make contacts with the right people. “Today, we are recognised when we walk into a room by judges and lawyers,” she said.
This consistency means that news items now come to Bar & Bench. People in the legal fraternity are eager to find their names on the website and on LiveLaw. In other words, the two titles have reached a position that was once reserved for newspapers.
But one area where Saluja says that the site is still unable to break into on the administrative side of the court, on matters relating to judicial appointments or controversies like the sexual harassment complaint against former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi in 2019.
When judges want information to be revealed, they still prefer select newspaper reporters.
In a profession that is often adversarial to women, with very few female big-ticket lawyers or higher court judges, the presence of Pallavi Saluja as the head of Bar & Bench’s editorial team cannot be overstated.
Saluja said that the reason she feels empowered comes not just from running a newsroom but also from the fact that it has a majority of women. “You can say our gender ratio is 7:3 in favour of women,” she said.
LiveLaw, which started three years after Bar & Bench, is the brainchild of MA Rashid, Raghul Sudheesh and Richa Kachwaha. Some time after he began practicing law in Kollam in Kerala in 1998, he started a blog. He soon began to gain attention.
“One of the ways in which my blog spread in the legal circles was Orkut,” he said, referring to the social network popular at the time. A few years later, mainly because Rashid didn’t have the time for it, he stopped writing the blog. But he didn’t stop thinking about the possiblities of a legal publication.
In 2012, Rashid toyed with the idea of launching a website modeled on the blog, along with his friend, PV Dinesh, a Supreme Court lawyer who eventually became the chief mentor to Livelaw – a position he still holds.
LiveLaw was launched in June the next year with two staff members. It took on law students as interns.
It took only two months for it to gain wide attention, he said.
“We initially were doing only High Court and Supreme Court judgements because we did not have the resources to cover [local] court proceedings,” Rashid said.
Rashid’s website steered clear of covering corporate law and law firms, which some other sites were doing. “I wanted the site to be a place where people would come to read about what is happening in the courts, not what some firms were doing,” he said.
But by 2017, the promoters began feeling the pinch. Investors had come and gone and the revenue model depending on advertisements was not working. “We almost decided to close the website,” Rashid said.
However, as he was deliberating the future of the website, he had a stroke of luck. “Dhanya Rajendran of The News Minute had flagged a potential funds opportunity from the Independent and Public-Spirited Media Foundation,” Rashid said. “She encouraged us to apply.”
The IPSMF, which has donors like the Azim Premji Foundation and Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies, has funded a wide range of news organisations in India from IndiaSpend to The Wire to Swarajya.
Once funding for three years came through, LiveLaw recruited reporters to cover High Courts and the Supreme Court and traffic to the website began exploding. Sections such as “Know the Law”, which breaks down legal concepts, did particularly well, bringing in many non-lawyers.
LiveLaw, like Bar & Bench, now charges for a number of features, with separate subscription plans for law firms andstudents.
“From thinking about closing down in 2017, we entered into a subscription model successfully in January 2019,” Rashid said. “It was a big turnaround.”
Both sites have made efforts to expand beyond English.
Bar & Bench launched Hindi and Kannada sites in August. LiveLaw has been doing reports in Hindi since 2017 and has plans to start work in other languages like Malayalam. Both see Indian language reporting as a major market. Bar & Bench has also experimented with using data to cover legal affairs. “We now have a dedicated person for this in the newsroom,” Rudrappa said.
Said Rashid: “Above all, we want to contribute in a significant way in ensuring greater transparency in all aspects of courts. If we contribute to that, we will consider ourselves a success.”