India has more than a thousand central laws, a larger number of state laws and a criminal justice system so complex, most of the population struggles to navigate it. A year ago, Delhi-based lawyer Srijoni Sen decided to make this system a little easier for the masses, one step at a time. The outcome of her project is Nyaaya.in, a website that describes itself as “India’s first free online repository of every central and state law, explained in simple English”.
Launched on November 3, Nyaaya.in has a simple mandate: to catalogue every single central and state law, translate important laws from legalese to simple, lay-man’s language, and offer comprehensive guides to help both victims and accused understand the police and court systems.
The website has, so far, catalogued the transcripts of 773 central laws and annotated guides to 10 prominent criminal laws, including those on domestic violence, caste atrocities, corruption, child sexual abuse and terrorism. The guides, for both victims and accused, come in the form of frequently asked questions, with minimalistic icons and graphics.
“Laws are not written with user experience in mind, and that is what we wanted to address through an interactive website,” said Sen, the chief executive officer of Nyaaya. “The idea was to open up laws for citizens.”
Modelled on Wikipedia
Sen studied law at Bangalore’s National Law School and Columbia University in the United States, but also spent three years as a business analyst with McKinsey. The idea for Nyaaya came to her last year, when she was working with the Vidhi Centre, a legal policy think tank in Delhi.
Sen’s work at the centre involved legal research and assisting the government with framing better laws, but she realised there was still a need to simplify laws and make them more accessible to the public. An opportunity to act on this idea came soon enough: Rohini Nilekani, the founder of water rights non-profit Arghyam, had set up the India Water Portal as an open access website to share knowledge about water resources, and she was keen fund a similar initiative in the legal sphere. Incubated by Nilekani and the Vidhi Centre, Sen soon began the set up of Nyaaya as a full-time venture.
By August, Sen had assembled a core team of three lawyers and two engineers to build the platform. They roped in more than 30 contributors – law students, legal experts and designers from around the country – who helped conceptualise, write and categorise the content of Nyaaya. Within three months, the team had made enough progress to launch the website, said Sen.
She, however, added that Nyaaya was still very much a work in progress, with hundreds of laws yet to be covered.
The idea, she said, was to create an online encyclopaedia of India’s legal system, using the Wikipedia model of crowd-sourced content. “Nyaaya will be like a modified Wiki that anyone can contribute to and anyone can help clean up, with the core team ensuring quality control,” she said.
Keeping it simple
While there are other websites, such as Indian Kanoon, that offer a searchable database of Indian laws and court judgements, Nyaaya stands out for its use of succinct, simple language to explain legal jargon.
“In countries like the US and Canada, there is a plain language movement in the past few years to make sure laws are written simply,” said Nidhisha Philip, a former corporate lawyer who is now the content lead at Nyaaya. “In India, we haven’t seen that kind of a push yet, but we’re trying to do that on Nyaaya.”
The guides for crime victims and crime accused focus on explaining relevant sections of the Criminal Procedure Code in simple terms. They answer basic questions that a victim or an accused would have – such as “what happens once I report a crime”, “what happens once a case goes to court”, “how does a criminal case start”, and “what are your rights at the time of arrest”.
Sen said, “We settled on these questions after talking to loads of criminal lawyers and other experts who often get these questions from their clients.”
Next, regional languages
Sen and her team have elaborate plans to take Nyaaya forward. In the short run, they will be developing annotated guides for many more laws that are commonly used by citizens. They also plan to take a closer look at state laws, many of which are currently difficult to find online.
“Also, a lot of government notifications, circulars and discussions on laws often end up all over the place, in different government departments,” said Sen. “We plan to put at least the most important of those documents in one place.”
Most significant, of course, is Nyaaya’s language plan. For now, the site is only in English. “But we are planning to translate the content in regional languages soon,” said Sen.