Tools of the Trade: An e-Grey Book for Seychelles

 

Seychelles is one of those historical oddities, a genuinely mixed jurisdiction, in which day-to-day Court process is familiar to any Commonwealth-trained lawyer, but the Civil Code and Constitution remain the fundamental reference point for all legal conversation.  Access to legislation is vitally important everywhere, but nowhere more so than in a partly codified system like this.

Attorneys and judicial officers in Seychelles have never enjoyed access to a Grey Book of the kind traditionally produced in East Africa, where frequently cited legislation is compiled into a single volume that can be carried into and beyond the courtroom with ease.  Indeed, until very recently, that concept may have seemed wildly aspirational.  Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, it was not possible for the Judiciary (let alone private attorneys) to maintain even an official multi-volume reference edition.  The last consolidated Laws of Seychelles were published in hard copy in 1991.  It has taken until 2014 for the Government to complete a long-awaited revision exercise.  In the meantime, practitioners – and Judges – have had to rely on a combination of looseleaf Gazette publications and some “unofficial” revised volumes, made available in hard copy only and at cost. 

Seychelles’ tiny size has certainly mitigated the confusion and uncertainty that this situation inevitably produces.  But its negative impact on the administration of justice (and the rule of law) should not be understated.  Lack of reliable access to current legislation has been identified as a significant contributing factor to delay in advising clients and managing proceedings, leading to delay in delivering judgments, perpetuating backlog and hampering development initiatives.

SeyLII, the Seychelles Legal Information Institute, was formed in early 2011 as a project of the Seychelles Judiciary, with technical and programmatic support from the African Legal Information Institute, AfricanLII.  SeyLII’s core purpose is to provide a free electronic portal for domestic case law and legislation.  While the site remains a work in progress, the response from attorneys and the general public has been immediate and overwhelmingly positive, clearly demonstrating both need and opportunity.

The greatest initial challenge faced by the SeyLII developers was the absence of a comprehensive current database of legislation.  In the absence of direct support for the project from within the executive branch of government, a local attorney was commissioned to collate and consolidate the entire 1991 Laws of Seychelles up to June 2012 in electronic form.  Once that work was underway, the concept of a Grey Book that collected core pieces of legislation in a single, convenient volume was no longer aspirational.  Indeed, it became apparent that Seychelles might be in a position to leapfrog the traditional Grey Book altogether, moving directly to an “e-Grey Book”. 

The potential advantages of this approach were immediately clear.   An e-Grey Book could not only be widely disseminated in electronic form, free of charge, but it could be downloaded as a PDF or ePub document and used offline.  All that a practitioner (or student, or interested member of the public) would need was a tablet or e-reader.  SeyLII could provide the platform for a downloadable application, and a reference point for regular updates and additions.  And thousands of trees would be saved.

A joint project proposal was created by SeyLII and African LII in early 2013 and, with the generous support of the Indigo Trust, the project is now in motion.  The European Union has led the way by providing funding to secure tablets for all current judicial officers.  Many private attorneys are already using tablets in their own practice.  It is anticipated that others will follow their lead when the e-Grey Book is released in the first half of 2014.    

The Book itself will comprise approximately 80 pieces of primary legislation (including the Civil and Penal Codes), with their associated statutory instruments.  The platform being adopted is Zoupio, developed by LexUM – a product that takes as an input the  most universally used authoring format (MS Word) and transforms it into a fully web interactive version of legislation. Zoupio is an HTML online front-end for books, manuals, statutes and other large or complex documents. It provides a powerful alternative to posting PDF files. SeyLII and AfricanLII have collaborated on the initial data capture, and will continue to work together to bring the collection fully up to date and monitor subsequent amendments.  The Book will be readable and downloadable on almost any mobile device, including the smartphones which are becoming ubiquitous in Seychelles.  It can also of course be used on PCs.

The ability to access the e-Grey Book as an offline resource is particularly important for Seychelles because while Internet penetration is already comparatively extensive, bandwidth remains relatively costly and free WiFi is not yet widely available.  Courtrooms in the new Palais de Justice, which houses the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal, have capacity for wireless connections but are not yet generally ‘online’.  If judicial officers and those who appear before them can work from a shared electronic resource, even when offline, the efficiency and utility of court hearings can be dramatically improved. 

The most exciting aspect of the e-Grey Book project for those involved with it here in Seychelles is its potential for expansion and replicability.  If core legislation can be made available in this form, so too, with time, can the entire legislative database – and for that matter SeyLII’s entire archive of electronic case law.  The amount of storage space required for this kind of application is minimal.  The real work lies in maintenance and updating by LII staff.  And the commitment required to support this work pales in comparison to its value to end users, both in and beyond the court system. 

Attorneys and judicial officers need the tools of their trade.  But the issue of access to legislation is a broader one.  There is no reason why every citizen in Seychelles, and for that matter every citizen in Africa, should not have free and timely access to the laws which govern their daily lives.  Thanks to our donors, and the continuing support of AfricanLII, that aspiration is now a concrete possibility. Only time will tell how far the e‑Grey Book concept can take us.