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Courting clarity: Desi websites are offering to decode the law for you

You can think of them as a homegrown Justice League, at hand if you run into trouble — or just have a questioning nature.

more lifestyle Updated: Jan 22, 2017 11:37 IST
Rachel Lopez
(HT Illustration: Siddhant Jumde)

Remember that scene in Baazigar where Shah Rukh Khan throws Shilpa Shetty off the balcony? Was that murder or culpable homicide?

The question was posed on Twitter by the website Nyaaya.in last month. Nyaaya itself provided the answer: It was murder. Had he thrown her into a pool, where she might have survived, it would have been culpable homicide.

Nyaaya is on a mission to become India’s first free online repository of every central and state law, with guides, FAQs and quirky pop-culture references to explain them. Live since November and currently in the beta stage, it launches officially on Republic Day. It joins a growing number of sites helping citizens make sense of our complex, inaccessible, often opaque legal system.

RULE BY RULE

Nyaaya’s format is straightforward: guides across 16 categories (for now), including domestic violence, manual scavenging and sex work. There’s a step-by-step explainer about what happens if you have been accused of a crime and what to do if you’ve been the victim of one.

The idea was long overdue, says Srijoni Sen, a lawyer and Nyaaya’s Bangalore-based CEO. “We found that people hire lawyers but still don’t understand what’s going on. There’s plenty of coverage of Parliament sessions and Supreme Court cases in the media, but little knowledge about the laws that affect daily life.”

The site’s core team of five lawyers and web specialists (along with aid from philanthropist Rohini Nilekani and help from Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, a legal think-tank) keeps the content simple. What if a person commits the same crime twice? What does the right to free education really mean? Is preparing to wage a war a crime? Can you complain of sexual harassment at the workplace on behalf of someone else?

“Our biggest problem with Indian laws is that not that there are too many or they’re too complicated. It’s that you have little access to information,” Sen says. Bollywood examples help. The 2010 film Love Sex Aur Dhokha, for instance, is used as a reference point to discuss laws about making a sex tape.

In its three-month run, Nyaaya has had several surprises. The team saw a spike in traffic for their explainer on nursing laws last month – it turned out there was an entrance exam coming up. And while some have objected to the site’s use of “she” as a universal pronoun, the general response has been positive.

On the agenda are plans for translations in regional languages and an offline version for non-profits. Meanwhile their #StrangeLaws are popular on Twitter. Did you know that spitting outside of a spittoon in a factory can get you fined the grand sum of 5 rupees?

SEARCH FOR JUSTICE

Most Indians researching laws online will have stumbled on to IndianKanoon.org. The nine-year-old site run by Sushant Sinha, a computer science and engineering graduate, has amassed 7.5 million court and tribunal judgements and created discussion forums.

Sinha, who wrote the software and launched the site in 2008, says it wasn’t inspired by a specific event – “perhaps I missed the ‘apple’ that triggered Newton”. It stemmed from his interest in Indian law blogs like LawAndOtherThings and SpicyIP, which hyperlinked Supreme Court judgements. “Two things struck me,” Sinha says. “These judgments were highly subjective. And they would cite sections of laws and other court judgments that made it all even more bewildering.”

This led him to look for an authoritative repository of laws on different subjects and, finding none, he built one himself.

Today, Sinha works on the site full-time. His study of visitor search terms suggests that only 30% of the traffic comes from those who work with the law. The rest are “common people perhaps searching for some illegal issues that have struck them”.

Call-centre owner Dev Nisar found the site especially helpful when a colleague’s family, the Patels*, had trouble with passport authorities in 2015. The father had married a divorcee and adopted her daughter. But officials insisted the girl enter the name of her estrangedbiological father on the passport application or get his consent before changing it.

“The daughter was particularly disturbed by this,” recalls Nisar. He logged on to Sinha’s site and found high court and Supreme Court judgements that set a precedence in their favour – since the girl was an adult, she didn’t need consent. She got her passport, and used it to pursue a medical degree in the US.

“The search technology was easy to use,” he says. “But we need free legal advisories too, like the West has Just Answers, and we need a platform to vet lawyers.”

ZOOMING OUT

Not all explainers come with bullet points or search engines. Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy takes the longer view, with essays analysing important constitutional cases, political and philosophical values that drive them, and their interpretation over the years.

“The idea,” founder Gautam Bhatia writes on the site, “is to arrive at a tentative understanding of the kinds of values that judges invoke in important constitutional cases, and the manner in which they do so – and then to critically question them at both levels.”

Bhatia, a Delhi lawyer and legal academic, set up the site in 2013, between degrees at Oxford and Yale. “The law is meant to be open and transparent; the UK and US have a thriving culture of law discussion,” he says. “SCOTUSblog would put out nice explainers before a big American Supreme Court case. We didn’t have that here.”

His site has Bhatia’s own academic scholarship (he’s also written Offend, Shock or Disturb, a book about free speech under the Indian constitution), progressive cases, regressive laws and resources for those researching freedom of expression.

With 900 subscribers and up to 2,000 hits on days when a big case is being discussed, the site keeps Bhatia busy. “But I don’t claim any deeper public service with it,” he says. “I just do it because I enjoy writing.”

YP Singh, a police officer who gave up his job to become a lawyer and activist, believes that such sites are welcome, even though they can help only a small portion of the public. “They work best for those who have some understanding of the law,” he says. “They have a long way to go before they enhance public knowledge.”

The smarter move? “The laws themselves need to be made simpler,” Singh says. “It will reduce complications in court, which stall proceedings and delay justice.”

(* Name changed on request)