Saturday, February 14, 2009

E-Legal: The Government efforts, shortcomings and suggestions

Guest Post from Sushant Sinha:

Government has taken significant effort in making primary legal resources publicly available on the Internet. The commitment seems to be present but what is lacking is in details. M J Antony highlights some of these problems in in his business standard piece. He points out that there is a lack of standardization across court websites and the search options are complicated for common people to use. The second problem he highlights is that the tribunals and many high courts are working very slowly to achieve this goal. Sikkim, Gauhati and Patna high courts have not yet started uploading the judgments on their websites and some tribunals have made very few judgments online. A standard user interface is often a contentious debate as it depends on how people search a particular set of documents. However, difference in opinions is not the real problem here. The problem is that the court website designers have not thought about the design well to justify their interfaces. Most of the interfaces seem ad hoc and are backed by a very narrow use case. For example, many court websites allow you to search for court judgments by year and number. This is useful if you are involved in the case but rarely useful if you are a general user and looking for new judgments. So standardization is not the real solution but a careful analysis of use cases and then designing user interfaces to support them is required. Antony is quite accurate that some high courts and tribunals are slow in uploading judgments. I would definitely like that to be speeded up. Beside these issues, court website operators have other problems that they should think about. Punjab and Haryana court had a legal warning on the website threatening that others should not copy the judgments from their website for commercial purposes. Considering judgments are in public domain, such warnings seem wrongly placed. I emailed them a few months back but never got any reply. Later I found that they removed the warning. Tarunabh in his Frontline piece highlighted a similar encumbered access to the online availability of gazettes. IndiaCode has been a wonderful effort in making all central laws along with their amendments available online. However, some acts like the Copyright Act have not been updated recently. Some statutes like the Code of Civil Procedure is not available. I have emailed them earlier requesting their update policy and the reason behind missing documents. But I have not been lucky to be blessed with a government reply.

It is hard to speculate why such problems exist. My guess is that the government offices may be understaffed or that they do not have enough expertise. If lack of expertise is the issue, then government should try to involve the community for their software development. A few steps required for this will be to open up their code bases to public and then start being more responsive. There will be far better code reuse and many people including me would be happy to supply them with better designs and bug fixes.

(Sushant runs the search site for legal databases Indian Kanoon)
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