Free Access to Law – Does it Matter?

Since 2013 we have been funding work to promote greater access to legal information in sub-Saharan Africa. We were reasonably confident that this work made a positive difference, but the supporting evidence was often lacking. In an attempt to redress the balance, we commissioned mySociety to conduct some research on the impact of this work and identify avenues for improvement. Today, that research is being published.

It seems uncontroversial to say that in order for a justice system to function, the people working in (or affected by) that system need access to some forms of legal information – cases, statutes, regulations, treaties etc. Without them, arguing a case or defending a position would be impossible. In many parts of the world, however, large amounts of this material may only be available in hard-copy format that may be difficult to access or behind pay-walls that require expensive subscriptions. In such circumstances, it becomes difficult for lawyers and others to access the very materials they need to do their job (unless they are fortunate enough to be part of a well-resourced university or law firm). One solution which has been around for more than 20 years are online Legal Information Institutes (LIIs). LIIs make significant amounts of legal information freely available online for anyone to use.

Despite their longevity and the arguments made by proponents of LIIs around greater accountability, improving legal systems and promoting equality of access, relatively little research has been conducted into the real-world benefits of LIIs. As part of our strategy review, we took the decision that more research was needed to build a better understanding of who uses LIIs, what impacts they have and how they can be improved. We had identified several reasons as to why LIIs were a good fit for us – both theoretical and practical – but wanted to test these through research. The report produced by mySociety attempts to answer some of these questions and identify sensible ways in which we and others can help promote the cause of access to justice in sub-Saharan Africa. The full report contains plenty of analysis and useful statistics on usage of LIIs that we believe would be of interest to free access to law advocates, funders (both those that already fund in this space and those more broadly interested in democracy, accountability and the rule of law) and government officials and politicians working in the judiciary. To give a flavour of the report’s findings, however, here are a couple of excerpts from the report:

The research identified clear, positive impacts resulting from the existence and use of the LIIs, most notably in South Africa, where the LII proved to be a key tool in increasing access to the legal profession for economically disadvantaged groups. Across the countries studied, the LIIs were also benefitting the development of high quality domestic case law, which had been underdeveloped prior to digitisation; and were considered to be useful tools for citizens in developing a more meaningful understanding of the law.

The study proposes four key recommendations for investment in the African LIIs:

  1. Develop the operational/managerial aspects of the LIIs in order to improve their efficiency and reduce waste.
  2. Encourage standardisation/centralisation/sharing where appropriate, in order to reduce the burden on individual LIIs, the creation of duplicative technologies, and hence increase outputs.
  3. Create the right conditions for LIIs to flourish , which includes supporting the work of open access/open data and information rights policy work.
  4. Invest in hardware and software that can significantly improve efficiency and output.

 

The full report can be downloaded here.