Vikram Hegde
Vikram Hegde

Ignorantia juris non excusat - The Future of the Principle in the age of Artificial Intelligence

This article discusses the accessibility of law to the general public and how the emergence of AI can affect the future in this regard.

In his address on the occasion of the Platinum Jubilee of Gauhati High Court on April 14, the Prime Minister of India emphasized the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to make law more accessible to the public and bring about "ease of justice." He identified that this was part of the scope of Phase 3 of the ecourts mission, as contemplated in this year's budget.

This raises an important question about the potential of AI in changing the standard of awareness of law and its impact on the general public.

The unrealistic but compulsory principle

The vast and complex body of law makes it impossible for even the most erudite judges, lawyers, and legal scholars to know all of it, let alone a common person. But our legal system goes by the presumption that "ignorance of law is no excuse" expressed in the Latin maxim Ignorantia juris non excusat – A person who has violated a law is not entitled to the defence that they did not know of the law. While it is impossible that every person knows all the laws, this presumption has been viewed as a legal fiction necessary to maintain the rule of law.

Can AI, specifically Large Language Model AIs, change this standard of awareness? Will it go beyond being just a theoretical standard imposed on all?

The widespread adoption of Large Language Model AIs has the potential to change the base level of awareness of law that can be realistically expected from a person of ordinary competence. These AI models are capable of parsing the vast body of law and providing comprehensive information related to any given situation.

The penetration of smartphones in India is said to be at 54% and is projected to reach 96% by 2040. We can envisage a future where the average person will check the legal position in a situation they find themselves in, or a transaction they’re involved in, and use that information to decide their course of action. Having answers to common legal questions readily at hand through AI-powered applications could change the usual standard of legal awareness.

This can have far-reaching implications for how people perceive and understand the law.

The more complex and important actions would still require the support of a human legal expert, (who is perhaps also assisted by AI). Day-to-day transactions where the time and expense of hiring a lawyer are not justified could be handled competently by the layperson involved, with the help of AI.

Making law accessible via AI

One of the key challenges in making law more accessible to the public is the language barrier. Judgments and legal documents are often written in complex legal jargon, which may be difficult for the common people, especially those who do not speak English, to understand. Large Language Model AIs have the potential to bridge this gap by analyzing legal texts and providing information in a more understandable language. This then means that law would have to be published in a mode that is accessible to AI and in a form that can be parsed by it.

When the standard of legal awareness among the public at large increases substantially, we may perhaps see a situation where the presumed awareness of law is closer to reality.

Moreover, if the standard of awareness of law is to be more strictly construed due to the availability of AI-powered legal assistance, it raises questions about the standards of notification of laws, regulations, and rules. Currently, laws are made available on standard websites like indiacode.nic.in, but notifications and rules issued under each provision may not always be included. Ensuring that all relevant legal information, including notifications and rules, is readily available and updated on such portals by the government at the central and state levels becomes crucial in the era of AI-assisted legal awareness.

Interactivity between the e-SCR project of the Supreme Court, and the compilations of statutory law would ensure that case law is also taken into account. Needless to say that the judgments of High Courts and tribunals must also be included in such an exercise.

Large Language Model AI is an aggregator of material that is already available. If laws that are modified or repealed exist on the statute books without a clear indication of their status, it may lead to an AI incorporating wrong information in the content it generates. The same goes for judgments that have been overruled or set aside. It is important to ensure that the body of published law is free from any noise that may pollute the understanding of law. The exercise of removing 3500 old and redundant laws from the statute books is a good step in this direction.

To enhance the accessibility of law and leverage the potential of Large Language Model AIs in creating legal awareness, the following steps should be taken:

  1. Laws, including notifications and rules, should be made available on standard websites like indiacode.nic.in, and similar portals should be opened and maintained by all state governments.

  2. The portals should be updated regularly and should reflect any repeals, reading down, or developments.

  3. The government, at the central and state levels, should take responsibility for keeping such portals updated with the latest legal information and should ensure that legal texts are presented in a language that is easily understandable to the public, including those who do not speak English.

  4. Efforts should be made to repeal and remove old redundant laws from the statute books, which can help in reducing noise and ensuring a clear understanding of applicable law.

  5. Judgments should be published in a manner where they can be read together with the relevant statutes.

Conclusion

Presently, the ignorance of law is not an excuse but the sad reality.

As former Supreme Court Judge, and present governor of Andhra Pradesh, Justice Abdul Nazeer said, docket exclusion is as big a problem as docket explosion. A large section of the country does not avail legal remedies available as they are not aware of their rights under law. Mass legal literacy has been difficult to attain partly because of the vastness and complexity of the laws. But the advent of Large Language Model AI s which can scan the large body of law and provide information on legality of any action at short notice makes the task much easier. The challenge now to ensure that the public knows how to use such tools to get authentic legal information.

This can give a boost in working towards a future where a plea of ignorance will be a mere excuse.

Vikram Hegde is an Advocate on Record, Supreme Court of India.

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