At its most basic level, a legal information institute obtains primary legal information from the public bodies responsible for producing that information, and makes it available online for free, full and anonymous access.
But what is a legal information institute when the courts from which judgments must be acquired are not themselves always sure where the final copy of the judgment is – either in electronic or in hard copy format?
What is a legal information institute when the courts from which judgments are sourced do not take the responsibility for ensuring that private information, including the names of minors and victims in sexual abuse cases, are removed from the judgments?
What is a legal information institute when the legislation of a country is available only through the purchase of costly subscriptions from a commercial publisher contracted by the Parliament of that country?
What is a legal information institute when the last Law Reports available in a country date from more than 20 years previously? Or not at all?
What is a Legal Information Institute when the transcripts of judgments are refused for publication – even by the courts themselves – by the company contracted to provide the transcription service on some very shady grounds of copyright?
All of the above describe situations SAFLII (the Southern African Legal Information Institute) has encountered in its dealings with jurisdictions across Southern and Eastern Africa….
Even more concerning is the role we have found ourselves assuming of the primary – and only – publisher of legal materials for some countries. Zimbabwe has not been able to publish its Law Reports since 2003 owing to the devastating collapse of infrastructure resulting from the political situation. Swaziland last published Law Reports in the 1980s. Many other countries have out-of-date Law Reports with no resources to continue the Law Reporting function. Others have written more eloquently than I on the necessity of having contextual law, particularly in common law jurisdictions. The point is singular and self-evident: how can the laws of a country be known if the laws of the country are not available?
In finding inventive and creative strategies for dealing with these situations, we have traveled quite far down the rabbit hole….
Of significance is the fact that we have never encountered resistance to the concept of Free Access to Law. The issues I have described relate to shortages of resources, skills and technical infrastructure – but not aspiration. Which is why it is critical that the strategies we employ do not undermine the self-sufficiency of nascent law reporting structures. It is perhaps in the subtleties of how assistance and support is offered that we can find ways to engage that are not overbearing. It takes just one person of vision and determination – a change agent – within a court, a university, a private practice, an NGO or a law reporting committee to unblock the system sufficiently that a legal information institute – whatever your definition – can develop. We therefore see our most important task as being to identify these change agents and to transfer our accumulated knowledge as well as that which we ourselves have been given by other legal information institutes….