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Wikipedian Justice in India's Courts

Intrigued by an article in The New York Times about the increasing citation of Wikipedia by judges in the United States, Raghav Sharma wondered whether judges in India were also increasing their use of this collaboratively edited encyclopedia. Sharma, a student at the National Law University in Jodhpur, looked into it and found that Indian courts are not only using Wikipedia, but do so "copiously."

"Though the winds of change can be said to have begun only in 2005, the numbers are rising fast with numerous examples of court cases from all over India in 2008," Sharma writes. He recently detailed his findings in Wikipedian Justice, an article available through the Social Science Research Network. Calling Wikipedia the "ultimate saviour (literally the Bible) for the present generation of law students," he nevertheless found it interesting, even humorous, to discover so much use of it by judges.

Sharma details a number of decisions from administrative tribunals and lower courts that cite Wikipedia as a source for definitions of various terms and concepts. But he was somewhat surprised to find conflicting mentions of it by India's highest court, the Supreme Court of India. In a 2007 case, the court cited Wikipedia for the definition of the term "decoder." But then, in a 2008, the court quoted extensively from Wikipedia and just as extensively seemed to disclaim its reliability. The court quoted it, Sharma explains, because counsel had cited it in arguments. But the court went on to add that an online encyclopedia may not necessarily be reliable or admissible in court.

He goes on to find several other cases in which the Supreme Court appears to rely on passages from Wikipedia, including one in which the court said, "Wikipedia, like all other external aids to construction, like dictionaries etc., is not an authentic source, although the same may be looked at for the purpose of gathering information." All of this, he concludes, sends a confusing message about the use of Wikipedia.

Though these references are not determinative in the above cited decisions and may have been used for "soft facts," the "signaling value" for lower courts and law students is going to be tremendous. Will not they be prodded to copiously use an unreliable source of information in face of the fact that the Constitutional Courts are mindlessly relying on it? Should not the superior courts discourage the practice explicitly?

It is an interesting question he raises -- one not likely to be answered anywhere on Wikipedia. Thanks to Media Law Prof Blog for pointing out the article.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on March 19, 2009 at 11:20 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

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