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An oft-quoted legal maxim is that ignorance of the law is no excuse. However, in order for citizens to know the law, it is necessary that the law be made available to them in an affordable, accessible manner—most importantly, in a language they can understand. This is no simple task in a democracy of a billion-plus people speaking 121 languages. Even three-quarters of a century after independence and over two decades after the birth of the internet, the Indian state is still struggling to make available all Indian laws available to Indian citizens in languages they can understand. Three specific policy issues stand out in this context: the India Code website launched by the legislative department, the plain language drafting movement, and lastly, the issue of authorised translations of law.
After a law is enacted by Parliament and receives the President’s assent, it is published in the Gazette of India. This version, considered the authoritative text of the law and recognised in the evidence act, is relied upon by courts. In reality, the gazette has been relatively inaccessible and the legal community mostly relies on commercial publishers who publish annotated versions of the bare text published in the gazette. Unlike the government, these private publishers also incorporate subsequent amendments to the law and produce a consolidated version. With the birth of the internet, the government had an opportunity to radically rethink the manner in which it disseminated legal information—and took baby steps by launching the India Code portal.
Now, most central laws and some state laws are at least available on one website (which received a substantial technological and information upgrade with a series of Delhi High Court orders) and some credit is due to its prime movers. But the website loses all significance because neither the legislative department nor the NIC is willing to certify the accuracy of the text of the law they make available on India Code. The portal carries the following disclaimer: “Material provided on this site is provided ‘as is’, without warranty of any kind, either express or implied, including, without limitation, warranty of fitness for a particular purpose. Legislative department specifically does not make any warranties or representations as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of any such material or the same being up-to-date.” (sic) It is rather worrying that the legislative department of the mighty central government of the world’s largest democracy is unable to certify the accuracy of its own legislation.
Also, they have chosen the most obsolete technology. Currently, India Code makes available legislation in a PDF and HTML format. This poorly compares with the utility offered by foreign government websites—computer languages such as Akoma Ntoso (AKN), for instance, make it easier to access different versions of the law in time. Many of these foreign websites also offer API (application programming interface) access to common users. In simple English, API access makes it possible for innovators to build a variety of applications based on information put out by the government. For example, in the UK, which offers API access to www.legislation.gov.uk, third parties have reportedly developed useful apps that allow lecturers to self-publish relevant extracts of legislation.
Plain language of the law
Besides access to laws, an important question that needs to be addressed is with respect to the form of the law itself. Only when the text of law is drafted in plain language will there be a benefit for citizens. There is no movement for plain language drafting in India—though this has been recognised as a basic right internationally. Fundamentally, the plain language movement sees communication of the law to be a core aspect. Making sure a law discloses volumes of information, in a manner that would not overload or confuse the reader, became an important keystone. New Zealand, Germany, the UK Australia and Hong Kong have been drafting legislation, guidelines or manuals to ensure plain language. For example, the Tax Law Rewrite Project (TLRP) of the UK aims to rewrite direct tax legislation in a simple, accessible format using modern language and shorter sentences. The movement also gives emphasis on legal vocabulary not being archaic or outdated, as can be seen in many colonial-era laws in India. The time has come for India, belated as it may be, to embrace the plain language drafting movement and enable citizens to make better-informed decisions.
Central legislation is generally published only in English and Hindi, a legal requirement under the Constitution and the official languages act (OLA). No legal mandate exists for the government to translate the law into any of the other 121 languages spoken in India, or for that matter even into the 22 languages mentioned in the Eighth Schedule. Despite this, a presidential order was issued in 1960, creating the Official Language (Legislative) Commission—now ‘Official Language Wing’ or OLW—which was tasked with translating central laws into regional languages enumerated in the Eighth Schedule. The OLW works in close collaboration with official language (legislative) commissions (of the states) or state law departments. A draft made by the states is sent to the OLW, the central authority, where the draft is vetted by a working group and a language officer. This official translation is sent to the President of India to be signed into law, thus gaining the status of “authoritative text” (as defined by the Authoritative Texts Act, 1973, or ATA). The problem is, the process is hardly smooth. And crucial legislation, like the Civil Procedure Code, 1908, or even the IPC of 1860 are unavailable in some Eighth Schedule languages.
Now, the ATA has a prominent limitation: the authenticity of the text is guaranteed only to translations into languages recognised in the Eighth Schedule. These are not even a fraction of the existing number of languages spoken in India, and only through inclusion into the Eighth Schedule can authoritative translations come to be in those languages. And that’s a distant dream for many languages. Access to such translated texts is another major issue. Besides publishing it in the official gazette and legislative department website, there are no publication guidelines.
The way forward
Three core aspects come to the fore. Firstly, proper dissemination strategies and the latest technological standards must be adopted, like the user-friendly interface of the UK website. Secondly, the plain language approach will ensure those affected by a law are in a position to ascertain its meaning and effect—this only deepens democratic rule of law. Thirdly, a multilingual nation like India must convey the law to all its citizens—the European Union, for instance, has published laws in 24 EU languages. English is anyway not the primary language of the majority of our population, and archaic legal vocabulary makes it doubly prohibitive. A constitutional democracy like India must not tolerate the status quo.
(The author is Content Lead of Nyaaya, an initiative of Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Views expressed are personal.)