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Beyond Accessing The Law, Citizens Need To Understand And Use It Too

BEYOND ACCESSING THE LAW, CITIZENS NEED TO UNDERSTAND AND USE IT TOO

Michael Murungi CEO Kenya Law

By Michael M. Murungi
Chief Executive/Editor
Kenya Law

September 2013

This article was also published in the Daily Nation newspaper on August 27, 2013.

A fundamental tenet of good governance is the obligation of government to provide free, accessible and open information to the citizen. Without this access, citizens cannot effectively participate in governance and policy-making, let alone act as watchdogs over public institutions.

Typically, by virtue of their work, government institutions often provide an information service as they seek to engage the citizen and other stakeholders. But such information should be presented in a manner that is accessible to the public.

Historically, the most common barrier to accessing public information has been the reluctance by government agencies to share it.

Today, new and subtle barriers to access have emerged. These include the language in which the information is provided, the technical formats in which it is presented, the time when the information is available and the contextual relevance of the information — the ease with which the citizen can find the particular piece of information that relates to him or her.

Even though Kiswahili is the most widely spoken language in East Africa and the new Constitution grants it national language status, government information is almost exclusively in English. Where public information is provided online or in digital formats, the problem of limited access is further compounded by the fact that the information is in technical formats that do not lend themselves to easy access.

For instance, providing information exclusively in print means that persons with visual impairment cannot access it; providing it in unfriendly technical formats (such as heavy image PDF documents) means it cannot be easily searched or retrieved.

Another barrier to access is the use of complex terminology that makes it difficult for the citizen to understand and use the information. Legal information, for instance, tends to be packaged and presented in a manner that alienates even fairly well-educated citizens.

While it was conceived as a tool for fairness and social justice, the law has evolved to become the art form of a restricted class of professionals.

Not surprisingly, scholarly and social commentary points to a distinction that has emerged between law and justice.

While the technicality of today’s legal language may be a natural result of the refinement and evolution of the law, the red line has been crossed by the capture of the legal and justice system by one professional class.

There is something the government and the legal professional can do to restore the balance.  One small, yet vital, step would be to increase the amount and quality of legal information accessible and usable by the largest cross-section of the citizenry.

It should also be the work of the legal intermediaries — lawyers, legal scholars, judges, magistrates, paralegals and other professionals in the chain of justice — to mediate this restoration by toning down on the formalisms and technicalities that have served so well to alienate the consumer of justice.

Beyond merely providing access to the text of the primary sources of legal information such as the judgments of the courts and the Bills and Acts of Parliament, more needs to be done to ensure that the information is provided in a language and format that improve access to it as well as the ability of the citizen to understand the information. There is a need, for instance, to start providing essential public information in the national language not just by translating it, but by originating future information in bilingual formats — Kiswahili and English.

Where the decisions of the courts can be easily accessed and understood by the citizen, people are able to order their public and private affairs with some regularity.  This would not be possible if the information is provided in a language or format they cannot understand. If this is true of court decisions, then it would apply with perhaps even greater measure to other species of public legal information such as the Bills and Acts of Parliament and regulations made under them.

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