IFLA Calls on Governments to Ensure Free and Equal Access to Public Legal Information

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The International Federation of Library Association and Institutions (IFLA) has called on governments to ensure that there is free and equal access to public legal information.

Specifically, the body called on governments to design and implement effective preservation strategies and incorporate technology-based authentication tools to assure citizens that what they are reading is genuine.

IFLA said in a statement: “The freedom to seek and receive information is recognised as a basic human right by Article 19 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This right of access to information is particularly important in regard to public legal information. People of countries throughout the world should be able readily to access the laws that govern them.”

It emphasised that governments have the responsibility to provide such access, to support transparency and accountability, civil engagement and a just society, in line with Sustainable Development Goal 16.10.

The statement added that the Open Government Partnership has also seen 70 countries underline the importance of citizen understanding and participation. Law libraries have traditionally played a crucial role in this area by maintaining and making available definitive versions of statutes, codes, judgements, and other pubic legal information.

IFLA notes that: “In the pre-digital era, libraries and librarians collected and provided access to print copies of the authentic and official versions of legal materials, and also preserved these materials for the future.”

The statement identifies the opportunities as well as risks presented by the digital age to an access to information regime. IFLA notes that “In the digital age, many governments now provide online versions of primary sources of law, including statutes, case law, and regulations, directly to citizens,” noting that “This can make it possible for the public to have equitable and continuous access to these resources, assuming wide and affordable Internet access.”

In addition to the opportunities it creates, IFLA states that the Internet has forced a rethinking of how such legal material is collected, preserved, and made available. With many governments shifting towards providing information only in digital form, the statement asserts that effective strategies are necessary in order to ensure that law is easily accessible, trustworthy, and there for generations to come.

Nonetheless, IFLA cautioned that: “Simply posting legal information online is not enough. Government providers also need to take responsibility for ensuring that the content they post is available to all, at no fee, that the content is authentic and trustworthy, and that it is preserved for public use over time in cooperation with memory institutions.”

On the risks side of the digital age, IFLA’s Law Libraries section, based on extensive research, found strong divergence in practices both between and within countries. It highlighted shortcomings in terms of access (notably where this was subject to a fee), authentication (where citizens could no longer be entirely sure that they were reading the definitive version of a law) and preservation (where many authorities simply did not have a policy in place). Unless tackled, such issues pose a risk to sustainable access to public legal information in the digital age, IFLA noted.