Imagine you’re driving down the Western Express Highway late at night, and the sheer joy of seeing it empty for once makes you nudge the accelerator a bit more than you should have. Promptly, the upstanding traffic policemen of the great city of Mumbai flag you down, point out you were going well over 140, and start issuing a challan.
As a law-abiding citizen of India, you’re supposed to pay the fine for the traffic offence that you just committed. But what might that be? You have a device in your pocket that would be considered a supercomputer three decades ago, and all the information the vast reaches of the internet has to offer, at your fingertips. So, when the officer says you have to pay Rs. 1000, and you feel it’s a bit higher than it should be, it’s only right that you check once for yourself, right?
Good luck with that! Finding accurate legal information on Indian Laws is more challenging than the Triwizard Tournament! Try it if you don’t believe us.
Now imagine if some bright spark decided to harness the awesome powers of AI and natural language processing to process all this information and make an amazing chatbot? You text it saying, ‘What’s the fine for speeding in Mumbai’ and it gives you a legally solid answer you can trust, because it’s reading the laws for you.
This remains wishful thinking for now, mainly due to the state of legal Information today.
The Quagmire of India’s Laws
Indian laws, rules, regulations, notifications, circulars are issued in the thousands, by hundreds of government departments around the country every day. They modify and affect each other constantly, and more importantly, they affect you. Whatever you are doing, laws impose rights and obligations on you every step of the way. But most of this important data, having direct impact on the lives of millions, is either on paper, or on image scans that are impossible to read
The furthest any government has gone is to issue pdfs with searchable texts. This still poses challenges as the layouts meant for printing on paper are carried over to the digital versions, causing eternal headaches over marginal notes, footnotes, tables etc. All of which are extremely critical to the accurate representation of laws.
This means that legal texts suffer from multiple shortcomings:
• Substantial number of laws are not searchable
• They are not machine readable
• There is no way of knowing whether the pdf you have located conveys the latest position of the law.
• They are not linked to each other
• They are not designed for the screens on which people read them.
Surely, there must be a better way? Totally, read on.
The Better way
Even though a law does not fall within the conventional understanding of “data”, there has been a concerted effort by civil society internationally to bring laws within the contours of the open data movement. The move towards converting laws into machine readable formats must be a part of this effort.
Laws marked up with a standard schema produce better search results, and opportunities for better linkages between the way people phrase their problems and the way laws deal with them. Marked up laws produced more effective search results, and clearer, more easily navigable websites to extend access to actionable information and advice. This in turn allows automated processing of these legislative documents, as well as more sophisticated applications to be built atop. Ultimately, it broadens and simplifies access to legal information.
Over the last decade, governments in many jurisdictions have begun to adopt XML standards for the formal sources of law they manage. Some of the prominent XML standards which have been developed at a supranational level include Akoma Ntoso and CEN Metalex. There is a clear move from localized efforts (such as individual government departments) to governments adopting XML standards at a national level.
If laws and regulations are readily available in a format that is machine readable, significant gains can be made in efficiency, transparency, public service provision and innovation in third party services. Consider just a few innovations live today:
• An 18 year old student in the UK saved British drivers over 2 million pounds in parking tickets by setting up an free automated website.
• Visabot is a Facebook Messenger based AI simplifying the immigrant visa process, by asking simple questions and doing the paperwork for you.
• The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s e-regulations project makes the law easier to read and navigate.
• The French GitLaw project enabled participatory approaches to drafting legislation, and tracking of amendments through Parliament.
A legislative management system that adopts these standard benefits multiple players in the legal ecosystem. Participants can reap the benefits without even having to be aware of the XML standards being implemented. Without the very latest technological innovations, this process could take years. Nevertheless, we at nyaaya.in embarked upon this journey last August, by converting laws into the Akoma Ntoso markup language, and our progress so far can be tracked in our Catalogue. Marked up laws are available on our GitHub account.
While the backlog clears, fresh laws and regulations can certainly be drafted and issued in markup language, unlocking the benefits discussed above. If this happens, then one can begin to imagine a day when you, the citizen, when faced with a questionable fine/penalty/legal action from a cop or a babu, could just whip out your phone and look it up for yourself. And that’s the day we all fervently look forward to. A day, when the nation’s laws are truly in the hands of her people.
An expanded version of this article was initially published on Linkedin.com