The Indian government, as well as her citizens, have continued belief in the ability of legislation to effectively tackle social ills. We can see this reflected in the social pressure after the recent underage rape cases in Kathua and Unnao, which led to amendments in the law on child sexual abuse. The same belief has led to a demand for a law to deal with incidents of lynching happening in the country. Successive governments have shown continued enthusiasm for law-making, and people complain when Parliament fails to pass laws. But what happens to these laws after they are passed? Implementation remains the bigger issue, and lack of awareness plays a large role in this. Laws exist, but people don’t know about them.
There is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of our democracy. On the one hand, ‘rule of law’ is supreme, everyone has to obey the law, and ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse’. On the other hand, laws are complex, difficult to access and impossible to fully understand. Especially in India, barriers of language, education and technological reach add to the problem of lack of legal awareness.
Even where there is some awareness, the law, and lawyers in general, are perceived as something to be feared. In R.K. Narayan’s short story “Gateman’s Gift”, the intimidation of the law is reflected in how the titular character is driven mad by upon receiving a registered letter. Registered letters are generally used in legal proceedings.
Knowing the law allows people to protect themselves, assert their rights and seek justice when they have been wronged. Laws were not written to be an exclusive, niche product meant for experts. They concern everyone in India and are applicable to almost everything. Naturally one would assume that laws are very accessible. Currently, however, finding a law that you want to know about is a very difficult task.
There are two main issues here. The first is the cost of legal information. Books and publications which detail legal information are, due to the nature of the law itself, detailed and voluminous, hence intimidating to read. This also means that they are priced out of the range of the common man. State laws are not simply expensive, they’re completely unavailable from most common sources.
Digitisation is supposed to help with this. However, the huge volume of laws dating back to the 1800s, and the fact that they are constantly changing, means that a lot of time and resources are needed to keep the information accurate. Thus, online legal resources are either locked behind paywalls or, when free, can be inaccurate or outdated.
One could point out, validly, that it is the government’s duty to provide free access to laws. Unfortunately, information related to the law is dispersed and hidden in a complex maze of websites run by different departments at central and state levels. Even though the government is the most authentic source of legal information, almost all its web portals suffer from content and design flaws. In most websites, there is no description of the legal resources available, no provision for online help, the website is too text heavy and intimidating and there are no clear instructions on how to access legal information.
Noting this, the Central Information Commission of India, (a government agency, set-up to deal with complaints related to the Right to Information Act) has, in an order passed in May 2015, stated that “It is impossible for any Government to expect obedience to their Law without informing the people in legible form”.
This is something that the government is cognizant of. The NITI Aayog’s three-year action agenda, in Para 19.6 mentions the creation of a repository where all legislation, amendments and subordinate legislation are available together in one place and searchable by subject matter. This brings us to the second critical issue. Even if the text of the law itself is available, is this sufficient to raise legal awareness? The answer is probably in the negative, due to the way laws are written. The structure of the bare text and the complex language become huge barriers for understanding even basic information.
This lack of knowledge, along with the lack of access to knowledge is what leads to the law being viewed with fear and suspicion, instead of a tool for empowerment as it’s intended to be. In trying to be exhaustive, the law gets filled with jargon. It is full of words, phrases, and terms like ‘prima facie’, ‘proviso’, ’notwithstanding’ etc., only understood by lawyers.
The solution, then is not just to put up laws, but also make them accessible and understandable. There are a range of measures that can be taken up to achieve this. Laws should be explained in a simple non-technical manner which can be understood even by the non-expert. This is something which the state has to consider at the stage of drafting of legislature. The text of our legislations should be clear, concise and simple. We must move away from legislations which are full of jargon, ambiguity and obscurity.
Further, to break the nexus of the English language on legal information, they should be available in local languages, especially state specific laws. While this would work for people who are can read and write in local or regional languages, it would still exclude those who are not comfortable with writing on any kind. For this, we have to move away from text to spread legal information. Non-text formats like videos, audio, infographics and comics should be explored in order to help people unfamiliar and intimidated by text.
As India grows as a society and an economy, it’s important that her citizens understand the laws that govern them. This can lead to a more informed citizen body, and lead to an increased participation of the people in deciding the factors governing their lives, public accountability of leaders, and an equitable distribution of decision making power. We can have as many laws as we want, but they are useless if only lawyers understand how they work. The whole idea of rule of law is meaningless if people don’t understand the laws that govern them.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.
Originally Published: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/voices/simplifying-the-law-for-the-citizens-of-india/