Promoting the Rule of Law in Ethiopia through Open Access to Legal Information

 

The World Justice Project Rule of Law Index for 2014 ranked Ethiopia 94 of 97 countries for Open Government. In response to this challenge, the Africa Justice Foundation (AJF) has been working closely with Abyssinia Law to develop an online legal resource which will increase transparency, strengthen the social contract, and encourage economic development in Ethiopia. This is a new strand of work for AJF, building on projects focused on improving access to justice in Rwanda and Tanzania, and on developing skills in legislative drafting in Ghana, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Rwanda.

AJF’s mission is to support the development of robust, stable and predictable legal systems that meet the needs of both the citizens of those countries and the regional and globally competitive environments of which they are a part. This is anchored in a belief that the legal rights and responsibilities of individuals, the state, and corporations, must be widely available if these are to be respected. Moreover, greater awareness of legislation and judgements is essential if the Rule of Law is to be upheld and contracts enforced. As we have argued elsewhere, this in turn, enables domestic enterprises to conduct business in confidence, while also encouraging foreign direct investment (FDI). Finally, better awareness of the law enables legislation targeted at crime and corruption to be successfully implemented, and safeguards the independence of the judiciary so that it can prosecute those responsible for these social ills.

Abyssinia Law was founded by Liku Worku, who undertook an AJF-funded scholarship at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (IALS), University of London, and subsequently returned to his role as a Legislative Drafter and Public Prosecutor at the Ethiopian Ministry of Justice. Recognising that there was no readily-available compendium of Ethiopian legal materials, Liku founded Abyssinia Law in 2012 as a means to provide an online free-access resource for Ethiopian legal information in both Amharic and English. Additionally, the site was designed to further the objectives of the Declaration on Free Access to Law.

Abyssinia Law aims to provide access to Ethiopian consolidated laws in order to aid the administration of and access to justice, the knowledge and practice of law, and the development of jurisprudence. It also provides a collection of resources on Ethiopian legal system including professional blog entries, commentaries, policy documents, court decisions, and research papers for Ethiopian’s legal profession, students, academics and the public, so that users with an interest in the law can promptly access the information they require.

In order to sustain its service, expand its provision, and meet the needs of its users, AJF funded the transition of Abyssinia Law to a new server in 2013. This resulted in the site averaging over 10,000 visitors per month, illustrating the importance of the service to Ethiopian lawyers. In response to this need, AJF has facilitated the registration of the Centre, and provided it with a grant to open a new office in Addis Ababa from where subsequent phases of the project will be delivered.

In order to harness the technical expertise and best practice within the online legal community, AJF and Abyssinia Law have partnered with AfricanLII to deliver the next phase of the project, which has been made possible thanks to a generous grant from the Open Society Foundations (OSF). This will enable the site to be re-developed to improve functionality and accessibility, culminating in the launch of an international web portal which meets the requirements of the global legal community. Furthermore, the project will provide the resources necessary to upload of all current case law, including over 1,800 Supreme Court Cassation Bench decisions, in both English and Amharic. Finally, it will enable Liku and his team to participate in the African LII family, including attendance at workshops and events aimed at exchanging best practice among providers of online legal information.

AJF intends to further develop its work with Abyssinia Law in 2015, with ambitious plans to upload laws from the nine Regional States, which date from 1995, and provide historical updates to incorporate all laws dating back to 1931. We also hope to integrate the site with ‘WoredaNet’, an e-Government Wide Area Network which is a resource which every Ethiopian lawyer has access to, even in the remotest part of the country.

[AJF Chairman Chris Lane and Abyssinia Law founder Liku Worku, May 2014]

This will go a long way towards enhancing access to justice in Ethiopia and ensuring the predictability and stability of the legal system for all actors. However, AJF does not want to stop there. It is essential to ensure that policymakers and intergovernmental organisations recognise the importance of the Rule of Law both for economic development and for individual citizens. As such, AJF has been working to ensure the inclusion of the Rule of Law within the post-2015 Development Agenda.

Following a hugely successful public meeting at the UK Houses of Parliament in September 2013, where the appetite for such an initiative became evident, AJF convened a roundtable in February 2014 to discuss the feasibility and practicalities of placing the Rule of Law within the post-2015 development agenda. The event brought together expert delegates from a variety of different backgrounds and industries, each providing their own perspective and practical experience. Participants included representatives from the world of business with practical experience of investing in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as practitioners from law, international development, and academia.

Drawing on the contributions of all delegates, AJF compiled a report to reflect on the key findings of the roundtable and outline the importance of the Rule of Law within the post-2015 development agenda. We find that there are promising signs that previous difficulties around measurement are gradually being overcome, and conclude that the Rule of Law can hold great value as both a guiding principle and sub-goal within the Post-2015 development agenda.

AJF has since collaborated with Advocates for International Development (A4ID) to draft an open letter calling for the President of the United Nations General Assembly to endorse a role for the Rule of Law in the high-level meeting on 9-10 June. Please add your name to the petition here, and show your support on Twitter using the hashtag #RoL2015.

 

Nick Branson and Leo Graham-Dullaert

Africa Justice Foundation