Historically, comprehensive and up-to-date legal information has been hard to access for a variety of reasons. In a pre-internet age the costs of printing, storing, updating and accessing physical publications were high and the information would sooner or later go out of date. These costs were often then passed on to consumers of that information, whether because government saw legal information as a revenue stream or private publishers understood there was a market and money to be made. The result was that accessing the laws of the land became a time-consuming and/or costly business available to only a handful of people with the requisite funds. Internet availability, however, seemed to offer a new way of making the law available and the cause of free access to legal information began to gain traction in the early 1990s with the creation of the first legal information institutes (LIIs).
While we have funded in this area for some time, we are taking an increasing interest in it and want to help the field improve and expand. To this end we have commissioned a piece of research to understand who uses free legal information, how and why in an attempt to bolster the use case and research on this important issue. It cannot simply be assumed that free access to legal information is good in and of itself – that hypothesis needs to be put to the test. That piece of research should be available within the next few weeks. In addition to that grant, we have awarded Laws.Africa a grant of £70,000 to support their exciting work on access to justice. Laws.Africa has a simple aim ‘to make African legislation freely available to everyone’. The following four pillars underpin their approach:
- Using technology to reduce the cost and time required to consolidate legislation and make it available for free;
- Making legislation available as a machine-friendly building block to unlock new value and opportunities in justice innovation;
- Enabling the legal, librarian and related communities to crowd-source consolidations of African law in a controlled, quality-assured way, while organizing a new skilled and knowledgeable community of African legislation editors;
- Allowing African nations to leapfrog into modern technology and deliver on their constitutional mandate to inform citizens of the laws that govern them – efficiently and cost-effectively.
Co-founders, Mariya and Greg explain why this is necessary:
“Many African countries struggle to communicate national legislation to their citizens. Even more difficult is the task of keeping legislation current and preventing confusion. Yet certainty in the letter of the law is of utmost importance for any state ruled by the law.
Print is expensive and ineffective. Sometimes there is also a skills shortage that compounds the problems. All of this results, contrary to international best practice, in a situation where many African countries do not provide digital, or any form of, access to legislation. This hampers the realisation of citizens’ rights and obligations, impedes economic development and modernisation.”
Legal information institutes have been doing this work for over 20 years, however, so what distinguishes Laws.Africa? Greg and Mariya explain:
“Laws.Africa is a platform that supports high-quality editorial workflows for consolidation of legislation that can be used by both experienced editors and as a collaboration tool for a community of volunteers. The platform significantly reduces the cost of consolidating and publishing legislation. It is the first open source platform of its kind.”
Indigo’s grant is intended to hep Laws.Africa at this early stage to develop the site and populate it with content. They will also be testing the contributor/volunteer model upon which the site depends. Indigo is very happy to be supporting such an innovative approach to the age-old problem of access to the law.