Know Your Rights
Viraaj Akuthota is a class actions lawyer in Australia, who focuses on public interest cases. Brother of Sammy Akuthota, who runs the famed Satya Chai Lounges in Sandringham and K Rd, Viraaj has worked at a number of NGO’s the world over – most recently with Save The Children in Myanmar. We caught up with Viraaj to learn more about an app that he’s been developing, called Know Your Rights.
Keegan: So where did the idea come from?
Viraaj – The idea came from a few places, but I guess the short story is watching Police Ten Seven and seeing the amount of people self-incriminate themselves. And at that point, I was just like “this is ridiculous”, people could then go to jail for talking to the police when they don’t need to talk to the police. Worst of all, the police are exercising their powers in a manner that likely constitutes racial profiling so ethnic minorities are disproportionately self-incriminating. The idea for a “Know your Rights” platform is to enable people to understand that a police officer can’t just simply stop and question you without any legal basis. Everyone has a smartphone, so let’s use a smartphone to deliver rights information in an app rather than a website.
K – Yeah I think there was a study that was put out recently about people dealing with minor crimes, and most people will, rather than engaging with a decent lawyer, they’ll actually just go through the entire process and end up in a worse position than they should’ve, purely because of a lack of knowledge around the law. Also really bad duty solicitors.
V – Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect system and duty lawyers don’t have the ability to spend the amount of time that is required on each case, so people are again left without access to justice. Because of the lack of access to justice, I wanted to differentiate this app from other rights based websites which only tell you what the law books say. The Know Your Rights app has case law (case studies) and also refers to police manual guidelines. I thought this is especially important in New Zealand as it’s a common law country, so the law is more than what’s just written in the books. The law is also contained in decided court cases which the vast majority of the public do not have access to or would not be able to easily understand.
I spent countless hours looking through different cases, seeing how it’s been applied, and one thing that kept coming up is that duty solicitors are facing an uphill battle. I don’t think it should fall back on duty solicitors as opposed to the legal system at large. So in case that you do want to fight your charges, a duty solicitor will basically deal with you on a very simple analysis, and say ‘hey you don’t have a good chance of winning because of this law’. But they don’t really apply the law to the facts of the case because they don’t have the time to do that. So that’s also a pretty large reason why going through the free-legal-aid justice system isn’t going to produce good results.
K – And do you think this affects poorer people more than richer people?
V – 100% In New Zealand you can even further de-segregate the groups that warrantless search and seizures affect. And it really affects Pacifika and Maori groups far more than any other group, but that’s also because of racial profiling from the police. But it’s too hard to narrow down issues, I will say that there definitely seems to be systemic inequality in New Zealand and also people lacking awareness of what their legal rights are.
K – How do you communicate that then? How do you get this app in their hands? Is it a matter of doing a social media campaign or is it something that you take right down to high schools? I think kids even at that age need to start learning. Like we’re taught about our rights but you know they teach you some real haphazard bullshit…
V – So that’s the second app I want to work on. When you’re under 18, the police have to engage with a different set of legal rules when they question you. This app is intended for adults. Youth will be able to use it, but they’re afforded even more rights than adults. So in the case of going to high schools and other youth groups, I’d have to first create a new app. But, I would like to team with an organisation that specially deals with youth. However, I could also imagine that schools might think that this app is made to help youth break the law, so there could possibly be another obstacle in convincing schools to even educate youth about their legal rights.
K – So how do you bridge that, by engaging with the DOJ and all these organisations who are at fault for a lot of this shit?
V – They are. Once I put out this app, I’ve been in communication with a few organisations, and I’m slowing down how I want to release this. Because I think, as you picked up, it’s a pretty significant issue in how this information gets disseminated, and who it targets. Some people who are affiliated with Auckland police have reached out saying that the Know Your Rights app could be a collaborative effort with the police. Despite the kind offer, I think what is lacking in most countries around the world is police accountability, to have accountability you need independence. Partnering with the police or the DOJ would therefore reduce independence, which is contrary to the goal I want to achieve.
K – Yeah I think that’s probably the worst way forward.
V – I agree. So the other way that I’ve been thinking at the moment, which other organisations have reached out to me for, is to go to organisations that already have a strong reach with Maori and Pasifika and hopefully at the end of the day it’d be a project that those organisations can take ownership of. I just want to highlight the issue and provide a tool that can bridge this gap, but I don’t really care if it’s me or someone else.
James – Why did you have to spend so much time to obtain police manual guidelines?
V – Police manual guidelines are not freely or readily accessible online. I had to issue FOI requests and also go online to retrieve past FOI requests. P.S. www.fyi.org.nz provides a huge database of people uploading their FOI requests and failed FOI requests. I highly recommend people to go onto this website and see how the government deals with information requests which affect a normal citizen’s rights. I believe that government information should be freely accessible to all and something I should not have to issue an FOI request for, but it’s not.
J – Why do you think it’s not freely available?
V – I think that’s a large philosophical discussion. But I would tell you, I previously worked in a community legal centre in Australia and we tried to get police manuals. One police manual that the Australian government wasn’t willing to provide was the police manuals relating to pepper spray. They have an entire manual under the guidelines on how to use pepper spray, how many metres someone has to be when they can use it, what it’s made out of, what the canisters look like, X Y and Z. The pepper spray that they use on citizens, yet citizens can’t have access to these guidelines even if you issue an FOI request as the government won’t release this information based on public security grounds. This is the normal argument, that it’s against the public security…
J- “It’s for your own safety”
V – It’s for your own safety…
K – “It’s for your own safety, and our own personal interests…”
V – But some police manual guidelines they’ll just give it to you as long as you launch an FOI request, but some they won’t. The manuals and guidelines to do with search and seizures, they will give those to you. But they just don’t put them online. I think they’re basically trying to stop everyone from getting a hold of them, but if you want it you can get it. I just think FOI requests act as another barrier to disincentivise people from knowing their rights against the police, like if it’s freely available why don’t you just make it accessible.
J – What is the current stage of the app? Is it ready and freely available now, is there further development that you think needs to be done and are you looking for help to do that?
V – It is ready and freely available on the Google Play Store. If someone can help me in terms of iOS development, please reach out! I also want to make another youth-friendly app. But most importantly partnering with organisations who actively work in access to justice spaces and can help disseminate this free app. These are the types of steps that are in my pipeline going forward.
K – Is there any funding available for something like this?
V – I hope so! I just built this in my spare time so would love some funding to take it even further. I’m currently based in Australia, and I’m seeking funding to make the same app in Victoria for youth law. I’m also seeking funding on an app I’m building which helps asylum seekers fill out their refugee application form. If someone in New Zealand wants to build an app that automates the New Zealand refugee process, please feel free to reach out! But I guess you get funding through connections…
K – Oh yeah…
J – I imagine you’ve noticed the exact same problems where you are as well.
V – Yes, I have, but in terms of funding in NZ it’s even harder as I’m not physically there. Ideally, I would want to pass this onto an organisation that sees my vision and they can take control of it from there.
K – I think the app could go worldwide, I see the applications in countries with indigenous populations, they’re always overrepresented in [negative] statistics, you know all the effects of colonisation…
V – Yeah, 100%. The idea is to create an app structure that has a codebase which can be reproduced worldwide. So an NGO at the end of the day would just have to do their own legal research and plug it into the app so they don’t really need to have a lot of coding experience. I just want something that’s plug and play that all these organisations around the world can use. But if the user has to pay any money for this, it detracts on what the product is intending, which is to give legal info to people who can’t afford it or access it.
J – Have you seen any examples of this kind of thing existing?
V – Yes and no, I have seen apps that tell you what the law is, but definitely not case law or police manual guidelines, but most importantly there is no app that I have seen which gives you comprehensive legal information and the ability to record a conversation with the police. In terms of comprehensive legal information, most legal websites will tell you to do isn’t what you want…it’s what you shouldn’t do, right? Don’t speed, don’t carry drugs, don’t break the law… It doesn’t tell you what to do in the affirmative. and that’s a hard line to draw because then you’re going from legal information to legal advice, and this app isn’t intended to provide advice. But it still has to draw the line between a positive and a negative act and tries to tell you what you can and what you should do. So if a police officer stops and pulls you over, these are the things that you should do, as opposed to what you shouldn’t do. One example is if a police officer stops and pulls you over, you should immediately provide all your details. If they ask you any questions, don’t answer the questions. Ask if you’re being detained, and if you’re not being detained, ask to leave. As opposed to the negative, which is “don’t do anything that can get you detained.”
J – What else are you currently working on?
V – I’m trying to get funding for a refugee app that automates the refugee application form in Australia. I carry out refugee applications and see the obvious need for a refugee app which provides legal information in relation to applying for refugee status in an accessible manner and most importantly in a language which is not English. I won a legal hackathon a few weeks ago so I’m going to New York in May for the final round. …and then I’m working full time as a class actions lawyer that focuses on public interest cases!