My claim to (arguable) fame as a non-African lawyer is that I once appeared and presented in front of a full bench of the South African Supreme Court (in a manner of speaking), and, once to all sixteen Chief Justices of Southern and East Africa. On both occasions, the subject was free access to law and the collaborations the judiciary of many African countries naturally formed with the emerging open access to law movement on the continent. Therefore, it was with great pleasure that I received and accepted an invitation to present a statement on AfricanLII’s recent work to the Southern African Chief Justices Forum’s meeting in Maputo over 26 and 27 July 2012.
The Southern African Chief Justice Forum (formerly the Southern African Judges Commission or SAJC) was set up in December 2003, comprising at the moment 16 member countries with a membership of incumbent Chief Justices or equivalent officers and their successors, in designated countries. The objectives of the Commission include among others: to promote the rule of law, democracy and the independence of the courts in the Region; and to encourage the publication and dissemination of judgments of the Supreme Courts and the use of information technology. It was in line with these objectives, that the SACJF and individual member Chief Justices as heads of their respective Judiciaries, became the biggest public institutions supporting the free access to law websites that were at the time (in 2006) emerging in Southern and East Africa.
SAFLII, Kenya Law Reports, and the Uganda Legal Information Institute at the time became the beneficiaries of this public commitment to support dissemination of judgments using IT. Then through SAFLII, and now through national LIIs, such as SierraLII, SeyLII, ULII, SwaziLII, LesLII, ZambiaLII and ZimLII, tens of thousands of judgments from Africa were published on the Internet in the short space of half a decade. This is a huge achievement, considering in most of these jurisdictions until then there were not even printed law reports available, let alone open access to digital collections of judgments. The impact of this remains to be documented, but one thing is sure, it could not have happened without the key support and cooperation of the SACJF and its individual members.
This year the Judiciary of Mozambique hosted the SACJF at Hotel Polana in Maputo. The theme of the workshop was “Access to Courts as a Consolidation (Strengthening) of the Rule of Law”. I thought my statement for AfricanLII would be apt considering the theme. The public meeting was like no other I have attended before – the posh conference room was packed full not only with all Chief Justices and their aides, but also senior judges, lawyers and academics from the region and abroad. The International Commission of Jurists had a distinguished place in the proceedings too. A number of donors working in the field of the rule of law was present and observing. I can only hope that the statement I made, touching on our collaborations with the judiciaries of the region, left an impression in all present. I hope that the encouraging nods, words and business cards I received in the corridors after the conference will translate to strengthening existing and establishing new free access to law initiatives in our region.
Statement on the Progress of the AfricanLII Project and Collaborations with the Judiciaries of some SACJF Countries on Free Access to Law Initiatives
By Mariya Badeva-Bright, AfricanLII
Honourable Chief Justices,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Please allow me to first express my sincere gratitude and pleasure to have been offered by the Secretariat of this esteemed Forum the opportunity to present you with a brief update on the progress of the African Legal Information Institute - a project with a mission of entrenching the principles of free and open access to the law across Africa.
Honourable Chief Justices,
In last year’s colloquium my colleague Tererai Mafukidze introduced you to AfricanLII’s objective, which is to build capacity for national institutions across Africa to publish their legislation and case law for free online access. Our assistance comprises provision of software solutions, hosting, training and other technical and programmatic support for the set up and operation of national law reporting facilities.
Today AfricanLII collaborates with more than 15 projects in countries across East, West and Southern Africa and directly supports the operations of 9 – in Lesotho, Swaziland, Malawi, Mozambique, Uganda, the Seychelles, Sierra Leone, and the most recent two – in very early inceptions stages – in Zambia and Zimbabwe.
In many of these jurisdictions, we have partnered with the Judiciary and Law Reporting facilities, and where we have done so, we have been most successful in delivering access to judgments and various other court information. Free and open access to the most current judgments of the superior courts of countries across the region is growing at an unprecedented pace.
Most recently, in October 2011, we assisted the Lesotho Judiciary in setting up and launching the Lesotho Legal Information Institute. Within months of the launch, usage of the website increased over 500% and LesLII is today being visited by more than 4000 visitors per month, with roughly half of those users accessing the website from within Lesotho, and consulting nearly 30 000 pages of Lesotho legal information every month.
Similarly, in neighbouring Swaziland, the more established SwaziLII has already managed to build a reputation of a reliable and timely resource of Swazi legal information. And the project continues to expand its collections. Earlier this year, we assisted SwaziLII in processing and uploading a comprehensive collection of caselaw dating back to 2005. Our efforts this and early next year will be in processing and making available the remainder of that archive,a complete collection of scanned caselaw dating back to 1974.
In May this year, we hosted a training workshop for a delegation from the Uganda Legal Information Institute – one of the older law reporting facilities in Africa. The purpose of the visit was to upgrade ULII’s website and to enable the Institute to serve timely and better-organized caselaw collection to its users. More importantly, the recent upgrade will allow ULII to assume full operational control of the ULII website and host it locally at the Judiciary in Uganda.
In the Seychelles, we work with The Hon. Chief Justice Egonda-Ntende on the Seychelles Legal Information Institute in its establishment as a unit within the Judiciary and provided the necessary training and website development. We are currently working on a project to provide free and open access via SeyLII to the most current and comprehensive collection of Seychellois legislation. Chief Justice, we thank you for this cooperation and your personal continued support in strengthening AfricanLII and free access to law in Africa.
With the most recent projects, in Zambia and Zimbabwe – there are early indications of support from the Judiciary. In Zambia, the local organizing committee is currently working on formalizing a partnership including the National Assembly, the Law School, the Council for Law Reporting and the Judiciary. We have already set up a website and published the most recent, 2011, law reports in digital format and for free access. In Zimbabwe, similarly, consultations were held and initial support has been obtained from the Ministry of Justice and law reporting facilities.
Against this positive background, though, I must admit that we have met with difficulties in supporting the law reporting initiatives in Malawi, Mozambique and Namibia. As we plan our work for 2013, we will be seeking targeted assistance and support for these projects from the Honourable Chief Justices of these countries.
Concurrently with our core activities, we at AfricanLII have been developing and deploying innovative solutions allowing even broader access to judicial information. The Supreme Court building in Mbabane, the Palace of Justice in Maseru and the Magistrates Court in Butha Buthe host, what we call, Freedom Toasters for Law. These are digital kiosks that dispense on request, all caselaw, legislation and court information that SwaziLII and LesLII respectively hold and serve online. In our attempt to bridge the digital divide that may affect access to legal information, lawyers and even citizens without access to the Internet can now acquire and read court information at no charge by simply walking into the Court's building and utilizing the kiosk. I must emphasize, these are the first freedom toasters for law not only in Africa, but also in the world. We thank the Honourable Chief Justices Lehohla and Ramodibedi for their patronage of this project. We thank Freedom House for funding the kiosks.
I must take this opportunity to extend special thanks to the Honourable Chief Justice Mutunga as a patron of the Kenyan National Council for Law Reporting, for NCLR’s special and continued contributions to capacity building for law reporting in Africa. Last year AfricanLII and Kenya Law Reports entered into an agreement for cooperation with a general intent of supporting and building a network of free access to law across Africa. In line with this cooperation, on Monday next week, AfricanLII and Kenya Law Reports will be hosting a three day training workshop, that will cover all aspects of law reporting and law revision and present our joint ten year experience in a systematic way. The workshop will be attended by delegations from ULII, ZambiaLII and ZimLII. This is another first for Africa.
AfricanLII, with continued support from our funders at OSI, OSISA and USAID through Freedom House, we hope will continue to strengthen free access to law across our region and continent. This work ultimately closes some of the gaps in access to justice. As someone once said, to be effective, justice needs to be seen to be done. AfricanLII provides that opportunity.
Your support is crucial for the success of these national initiatives. We thank you and look forward to our continued work with you in your jurisdictions.
 Speech by the Rt. Hon. Justice Benjamin J. Odoki, Chief Justice of Uganda, at the Opening of the Conference of the Southern African Judges Commission, held at Imperial Resort Beach Hotel, Entebbe, Uganda < http://www.venice.coe.int/SACJF/2005_02_UGA_Entebbe/rep_odoki.htm> and the Constitution of the SAJC available at < http://www.venice.coe.int/SACJF/Basic_texts/SACJF_Constitution.pdf >