Research paper assisted on by BDK’s Amorette Gangel
In more than 60 countries around the world, Legal Information Institutes (LIIs hereafter) make significant volumes of legal information — legislation, case law, judgements etc — freely available on the internet. These repositories provide information that, in many countries, is otherwise only available online behind paywall subscriptions or in hard to access (and oftentimes costly) hard-copy formats. In so doing they can provide valuable resources to legal students, practitioners and stakeholders. Despite the fact that a substantial movement exists promoting the principles of free access to law, these services have received relatively little charitable or philanthropic funding — particularly when compared to services that provide information relating to political or fiscal transparency. Is it the case that LIIs are primarily used by comparatively well-paid professionals, and hence deliver little true, positive, impact? Or do LIIs in developing countries, where domestic case law and legislation is already difficult to access, and where social mobility within the professions remains low, perform a greater societal service?
As a financial supporter of a number of African LIIs since 2013, the Indigo Trust, a UK-based philanthropic foundation, commissioned this report to examine the impacts of the LIIs, and whether those impacts could reasonably be amplified with greater investment. Current research into the impacts of the LIIs anywhere in the world remains scant, and an examination of the benefit of the LIIs in sub-Saharan Africa has not previously been conducted. This research therefore asked two overarching questions:
- What (if any) positive impacts arise from the open, free, publication of legal information on LIIs across sub-Saharan Africa?
- How might any existing positive impacts be increased and novel positive impacts accrued?
Using a mixed methods approach consisting of desk-based research, surveys on the sub-Saharan African LIIs, and field work in three case study countries of Ghana, South Africa and Uganda, this research examined these questions, and identified common points of impact across the LIIs, as well as barriers to improvement and areas where increased investment could leverage greater beneficial impacts.
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:
- Develop the operational/managerial aspects of the LIIs in order to improve their efficiency and reduce waste.
- Encourage standardisation/centralisation/sharing where appropriate, in order to reduce the burden on individual LIIs, the creation of duplicative technologies, and hence increase outputs.
- Create the right conditions for LIIs to flourish, which includes supporting the work of open access/open data and information rights policy work.
- Invest in hardware and software that can significantly improve efficiency and output.
This research concluded that the LIIs in Africa were valuable, well used resources for those interested in the law, and acted as significant tools for social and legal change in sub-Saharan Africa, rather than as mere information repositories for professionals. Over 75% of legal students and professionals consulted for this report stated that they would find it more difficult to do their jobs to the same standard without access to the relevant LII. In South Africa in particular, the LII functions as a unique mechanism for leveraging diversity into what was previously a homogeneous and elite legal profession, and where 71% of students stated that it would be impossible for them to complete their studies without access to the LII. Overall, the LIIs were confirmed to be universally positive and progressive elements of developing and maturing legal systems in sub-Saharan Africa.
Further investment in LIIs where the potential social impacts are so beneficial could almost certainly amplify the positive social and legal outcomes observed in this research. This report recommends further research into the benefits of the LIIs around the world, in particular where access to the legal profession is restricted by economic disadvantage, and suggests that the beneficial impact of the LIIs could be significantly greater than is currently evidenced.