Compiling online legal information in transitional states: challenges and opportunities

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There are two broad challenges, or priorities, associated with compiling and maintaining online legal information. First, there must be a sustainable organization in place to ensure not only the creation of a database of laws, but also its continuous updating and maintenance. This includes issues such as staffing, funding, and obtaining the political will of governments to freely publicize laws. Second, after the logistics of creating an organization to compile laws, questions must be addressed as to how information will be assembled. This involves questions of sophistication of search ability, storage, user interface – all of which relate to the target audience for the database.

The first priority when creating an online legal database is to ensure that a reliable and reputable organization will develop and maintain it. Whether public or private, there must be assurances that the database will be alive and useful to target audiences for the foreseeable future. This generally involves some commitment of government resources, whether financial or in kind, to support the project. Additionally, governments must commit to public dissemination of their laws online. Traditionally all governments have been cautious about making information about their activities public, and this is especially true with governments in transitional countries, where transparency and democracy are relatively recent concepts. To compile a meaningful database, a government commitment must ensure the availability of more than a token amount of information.

The second, but equally important priority when creating an online legal database is to decide with stakeholders on a target audience and develop an interface that will be easily navigated. In transitional states, it is often encouraged by civil society organizations and development partners that online legal information be made available to all citizens, as it is in modern democracies. If accepted that a database should be widely utilized by courts, legal professionals and citizens, a database must be designed with the needs of the legal professional but the savvy of the average citizen in mind. Choices from auto-complete text to drop-down menus all involve questions of what is most likely to help facilitate effective legal research. Lessons learned from existing online legal databases combined with custom and cultural experience will lead, after much work, to a viable solution.

This paper will focus on the challenges and opportunities of creating online legal databases from scratch, particularly in transitional states. Building on the author’s experience working with a team creating Rwanda’s online Legal Information Portal, the paper will explore the managerial and technical considerations when starting such an endeavor.

September 26, 2013 - Afternoon