By: Loren Turner
On Monday, July 15, 2019, the 2019 FCIL-SIS Schaffer Grant recipient, Mariya Badeva-Bright, who leads the AfricanLII project at the University of Cape Town, South Africa (and recently co-founded Laws.Africa, a legislative commons), delivered a fantastic presentation titled “African Law for Everyone: AfricanLII and Laws.Africa.” Mariya’s presentation was a summary of her motivations and processes for gathering and digitizing African law as well as a “call to action” to law librarians worldwide for help in making African law accessible to all.
Mariya began her presentation by stating that there is no reliable, consistent, and up-to-date access to the law in many African countries – free or not. Mariya provided several reasons for the lack of access to legal information: indifference of commercial publishers; lack of funds and skills on the local levels; poor record keeping; and low level corruption. She argued that there can be no justice without access to legal information. When the law is not available freely and easily, judges cannot determine precedent; rich litigants have an unfair advantage. As support, Mariya shared visual images of legislative texts in which pages were literally cut out, edited by hand, and then reinserted. The reality, Mariya said, is that lots of African law is in such condition and this format frustrates access to justice.
Mariya explained that the AfricanLII and the Laws.Africa projects are about building an open infrastructure of African legal information with opportunity for sophisticated searches. They have to be open to anyone and offer speed, efficiency, services, growth and development.
AfricanLII was founded in 2010 to promote the role of LIIs in Africa. It now offers a federated search of over 250k documents of African legal information. Additionally, in response to user demand, it has begun to create case indices, including the Human Rights Law Index and the Commercial Law Index. It also provides a current awareness newsletter that started out as a service for judges but has expanded to anyone interested in following legal developments in African law (subscribe at the bottom of this page). Most recently, AfricanLII launched a citator service, available in beta format. It is the first visual citator in the access to law movement, but what is more remarkable is that it creates a citator service for cases that were never published in law reports and, therefore, don’t have citations! The AfricanLII database sees about 400,000 unique users per month, 90% of which are within Africa. Users are primarily from the justice sector (lawyers, judges, paralegals, magistrates, law students, government workers, etc.) but there is an increase in “average joes” accessing the database.
When the AfricanLII project began, there was a conscious choice to focus on gathering and digitizing cases rather than legislation. Cases have their own value, but outdated legislation has little value. The creators of AfricanLII had concerns about the future credibility of their project if they uploaded outdated legislation. Plus, the reality is that in most African countries, there is no free source of consolidated, up-to-date legislation.
The Laws.Africa project developed to address the lack of freely available access to African legislation. The creators of the Laws.Africa project surveyed other country’s attempts at making legislation current and freely accessible. They decided that the UK’s legislation.gov.uk was the model “golden” standard outside of Africa because of its rich interface and up-to-date, authoritative corpus. Within Africa, the “golden” standards were Kenya law, an authoritative source of Kenyan legislation, and OpenBylaws.org.za, which focuses on improving access to South African by-laws.
Laws.Africa is an open source, cloud platform for efficient cost-effective consolidation and publication of African legislation. It aims to crowdsource an open digital archive of African gazettes and use technology (in particular, Akoma Ntoso, a non-proprietary, XML markup standard for legislative documents) to consolidate legislation. In terms of processes: once a gazette is uploaded onto the Laws.Africa platform, a group of contributors (law students and law library students) extract individual Acts and identify changes to the Act over time. A small group of reviewers check the work of the contributors (there is a two-step review process). After review, the consolidated legislation becomes available in a variety of formats.
The Laws.Africa project has already acquired and uploaded over 13,000 national gazettes. These gazettes are available in .pdf versions through a linked sister site called Gazettes.Africa. But, it takes a village to make a complete collection! Unfortunately, Mariya explained, the law of Africa is not in Africa. Instead, many African gazettes, especially historical ones, are located in libraries outside of Africa. To continue building the collection of African gazettes and legislation on the Laws.Africa portal, Mariya and her colleagues need law librarians and digitizers in the U.S. and U.K. to donate their African gazettes to the project. Mariya believes that crowdsourcing these gazettes is the best way to reach the goal of a complete collection.
For a video of Mariya’s FCIL-SIS Schaffer Grant presentation, as given at Yale Law Library subsequent to the 2019 AALL Annual Meeting, follow this link.