Access to legal information in the digital era

Access to legal information in the digital era

Access to information, legal information included, is a fundamental right as recognized by Resolution 59 of the UN General Assembly adopted in 1946, as well as by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This right is also provided for in Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and nationally, under section 62 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment (No. 20) Act 2013. Information has become more accessible with the advent of information technology the world over, Zimbabwe included. The Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) reported that as at 31 December 2017, there were over 14 million active mobile subscriptions.  ZimLII, an online platform that provides free access to Zimbabwe case law, legislation and legal journals seeks to increase access to public legal information. This article looks at why access to legal information is crucial, not only to the legal fraternity, but to the general populace at large.

Ignorantia legis neminem excusat is a Latin term stating that ignorance of the law excuses no one and is a legal principle that a person who is unaware of a law may not escape liability for violating that law merely because she or he is unaware of its content. A person is bound by a law even if they do not know of that law. Therefore, citizens have the right to know the laws governing their conduct so that they are not found on the wrong side.

Free dissemination of legal information contributes to the rule of law and the overall ideals of democracy. According to the principles of the rule of law, the State itself must abide by its laws and actively subject itself to principles of legality (lawfulness). Open access to legal information provides leverage for those questioning the actions of the State or defending their rights against the State. Where statutes, often seen as the main end results of the democratic process, are accessible, citizens can learn about and understand laws adopted by their representatives and this knowledge can contribute to increasing the civic involvement of the citizens since informed citizens can participate more actively in democratic life.

Access to legal information contributes to equality before the law as everyone then has the same opportunities to gain knowledge of the law, which in turn makes legal systems fairer. Where legislation is difficult to access, and case law is even harder to find, a citizen with little means who is subject to legal proceedings and is without legal representation will have difficulties in bringing appropriate legal arguments relevant to the case.

National legal systems are strengthened through access to legal information as there is openness and transparency in the way matters are handled by the Courts. Where citizens know who judged what case, what facts were taken into consideration and what conclusion was reached, all participants will be under pressure to ensure not only that the principles of justice were applied, but also that the application of the principles has taken place in a transparent manner.

It is therefore evident that making legal information accessible benefits not only stakeholders within the legal fraternity but the general populace at large. Through its website (www.zimlii.org) and social media platforms (Facebook www.facebook.com/ZimLII/ and Twitter (@ZimLII), ZimLII shares legal information on judgments from the High, Supreme and Constitutional Courts in Zimbabwe, subordinate legislation as well as Acts of Parliament and legal journals.  All ZimLII platforms can be accessed by anyone and it is envisaged that no one need be found on the wrong side of the law simply because they were not aware of the law; that more citizens will engage in governance issues; and that the legal system becomes more accessible, transparent and efficient to all.

POTRAZ Abridged Annual Postal and Telecommunications Sector Performance Report, 2017

Open access to law in developing countries, Daniel Poulin, http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1193/

Poulin supra