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The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.
- Henry VI, Pt. 2, Act 4, sc. 2.

This line, delivered by Dick the Butcher (turned revolutionary) in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, is often performed tongue-in-cheek by actors to elicit an expected laugh from the audience. The essence of the line, however, is no joke, and relates to destabilizing the rule of law by removing its agents — those who promote and enforce the law. What no one could predict, including Shakespeare himself, is the horrific precision with which such a deed could be carried out.

The 1994 Genocide in Rwanda showed this horror and more, with upwards of one million killed in the span of three months. The effect on the legal system was particularly devastating, with the targeting of lawyers and the justice sector, resulting in the targeted killing of prosecutors and judges at its outset.

Rwanda’s Justice Sector Development
Since 1994, Rwanda has done a remarkable job rebuilding its society, establishing security, curbing corruption, and creating one of the fastest growing economies in sub-Saharan Africa.

Law Library at the Ministry of Justice, Kigali, Rwanda.

Law Library at the Ministry of Justice, Kigali, Rwanda.

One of the biggest areas of development in Rwanda, and in other areas of the world, has been strengthening justice sector institutions and strengthening the rule of law. In transitional states, especially those developing systems of democratic governance, the creation of online, reliable, and accessible legal information systems is a critical component of good governance. Rwanda’s efforts and opportunities for development in this area are noted below.

From 2010-2011, I played a very small part of this development when I served as a law clerk and legal advisor to then-Chief Justice Aloysie Cyanzayire of the Supreme Court of Rwanda. Working with a USAID-funded project, I was also able to participate with legal education reform, and the development of an online database of laws, the Rwanda Legal Information Portal (RwandaLIP). In the summer of 2013 I returned to Rwanda, with the support of the American Association of Law Libraries, to visit its law libraries and understand the role of law libraries in legal institutions and overall society. After learning the Rwanda LIP was no longer updated (and now offline entirely), investigating Rwanda’s online legal presence became a secondary research goal for the trip. The discovery also highlighted the importance of legal information systems and their role in justice sector reform. Part of this justice sector reform related to changes in Rwanda’s legal system. Once a Belgian colony, at independence Rwanda inherited a civil law system, codified much of the Belgian civil code, and today the main body of laws comes from enactments of Parliament. Rwanda’s judicial system, rebuilt after the 1994 Genocide, is made up of four levels of courts: District Courts, Provincial Courts, High Courts, and the Supreme Court.
With its civil law roots, courts in Rwanda were largely unconcerned with precedent. As Rwanda became a member of the East African Community in 2007 (and adopted English as an official language), the judiciary started a transition to a hybrid common law system, considering how to assign precedential value to court decisions. With this ongoing transition in Rwanda’s legal system, an online legal information system has become a significant need for legal and civil society.

One of four computer labs, called the "digital library" at Kigali Independent University, with more than 400 computer workstations available for student use.

One of four computer labs, called the “digital library” at Kigali Independent University, with more than 400 computer workstations available for student use.

Online Legal Information Systems
In order to establish the rule of law in a democratic system, citizens must have access, at the very minimum, to laws of a government. To make this access meaningful, a searchable database of laws should be created to allow users of legal information to find laws based on their particular information need. For this reason alone it is important for governments in transitional states to make a commitment to developing online legal information systems.

John Palfrey aptly noted: “In most countries, primary legal information is broadly accessible in one format or another, but it is rarely made accessible online in a stable and reliable format.” This is basically the case in Rwanda. Every law library, university library, and even the Kigali Public Library have paper copies of the Official Journal — the official laws of Rwanda. Today, however, the only current place to find laws online is through the Prime Minister’s webpage, where PDF copies of the Official Gazette are published. The website Amategeko.net (Kinyarwanda for “law”) was frequently used by lawyers and members of the justice sector to search Rwanda’s laws, and allowed the general public to not only access laws, but run a full text search for keywords. This site, however, was not updated after 2011, and is now completely offline. The result is no online source to search Rwanda’s laws.

Law Library at the Parliament of the Republic of Rwanda in Kigali.

Law Library at the Parliament of the Republic of Rwanda in Kigali.

Rwanda is using its growing information infrastructure, however, to create other online quasi-legal information databases. For instance, the Rwanda Development Board created an online portal for businesses to access information on “investment related procedures” in Rwanda. The government is also allowing online registration of businesses, streamlining the processes and making it more accessible. These developments make sense with Rwanda’s reforms in the area of economic development, and its recent ranking in the top 30% globally for ease of doing business, and 3rd best in sub-Saharan Africa. While economic reform has driven these changes, justice sector reform has not yet yielded the same results for online legal information systems.

Service counter at the University Library at Kigali Independent University in Rwanda.  Students aren't allowed to browse the library stacks.

Service counter at the University Library at Kigali Independent University in Rwanda. Students aren’t allowed to browse the library stacks.

Rwanda’s Legal Information Culture Despite the limited online access to laws, there is a high value placed on legal information in Rwanda. Every legal institution has a law library and a dedicated library staff member (although most don’t have formal education in librarianship or information management). Moreover, members of the justice sector, from staff members to Permanent Secretaries and Ministers, believe libraries and access to legal information is of critical importance. A common theme in Rwanda’s law libraries, however, is the lack of funding. Some libraries have not invested in library materials in years, and have solely relied on donations to add items to their collections. It is not altogether surprising, then, that the Rwanda LIP remained un-funded, and is now completely defunct as an online legal information system. One source close to the Rwanda LIP project indicated that funding has been sought at Parliament, but as of today has yet to be successful.

The failure of the Rwanda LIP is perhaps a victim of how it came to be; that is, through donor-funded development. Creating sustainable online databases requires a government commitment of financial support. Just as Amategeko.net before it, the Rwanda LIP was created through a donor-funded initiative, and at its conclusion the LIP’s source of funding also ended. For any donor-funded development initiative, sustainability is a key concern, and significant government collaboration is necessary for initiatives to remain after donor-funded projects end. This concept is especially true with legal information systems, and is perhaps the cause for the Rwanda LIP’s demise. While created in partnership with the Government of Rwanda, it failed to adequately secure a commitment for continued funding at its outset. Sustainability issues are not unique to Rwanda’s experience with online legal information systems. The availability of financial resources is one of the key challenges to creating a sustainable online database of laws. Working with developing countries in Africa, SAFLII found that sustainability issues come from “shortages of resources, skills and technical services.” While donor-funded projects have serious limitations, others experiencing the sustainability challenge have suggested databases supported by private enterprise, “offering free content as well as value-added services for sale.” One thing for certain is that long-term sustainability remains one of the biggest challenges for online legal information systems.

View of the Kigali Public Library in Kigali, Rwanda.

View of the Kigali Public Library in Kigali, Rwanda.

Print to Digital Transition and Overcoming the Digital Divide In addition to sustainability, transition from print to digital poses its own complications, and has emerged as a major issue in law libraries, from even the most established institutions. This challenge is especially unique in the context of developing and transitional states, where access to the internet can pose a significant challenge. This problem, known as the “digital divide,” has been described as something that “disproportionately disenfranchises certain segments of society and runs counter to the notion that inclusiveness and opportunity build strong communities and countries.” This is an even larger problem in developing and transitional states, where there is far less wealth and technological infrastructure for internet connectivity, and a greater disparity in access between and among communities.

Of all countries in the process of developing online legal information systems, however, Rwanda is perhaps the best suited to succeed. With high-speed fibre-optic internet cables recently installed throughout the small East African country, Rwanda has one of the best internet penetration rates in the developing world. So, while Rwanda’s law libraries (and other libraries) throughout the country have print copies of laws, there may be a legitimate opportunity to give a large number of citizens online access. For example, the Kigali Public Library, the flagship institution of the Rwanda Library Services, houses print copies of the laws of Rwanda but also has an internet cafe giving free access to online resources. Kigali Independent University has an “Internet Library” with more than 500 computers for student use. Rwanda’s law libraries are also open and accessible to the public, some of which have computers for use by the public as well. Other libraries, including the law library at the National University of Rwanda, have increasing access to online resources to serve their users.

In Rwanda, a new access to information law (Official Gazette No. 10 of 11.03.2013) makes online legal information even more critical in the developing state, and Rwanda’s current efforts can serve as an example for the importance of modernizing online legal information. The access to information law imposes a positive obligation on the Government of Rwanda, and some private companies working under government contracts, to disclose a broad range of information to the public and press. It has been stated that the law “meets standards of best practice in terms of scope and application” for freedom of information laws. Despite the law’s conditions to withhold information under Article 4, the significant shift in policy and the law’s broad range of information available are very positive signs. This and similar laws across the developing world have created a need for the improvement of existing legal information systems, or the creation of new systems to adequately make available essential legal information. A critical component to the implementation of this law, therefore, is a reliable and sustainable online legal information system.

A view of the volcanoes in the Northern Province of Rwanda.

A view of the volcanoes in the Northern Province of Rwanda.

Lessons Learned from Rwanda’s Experience
While Amategeko.net and the Rwanda LIP are no longer online, institutions within the justice sector of Rwanda are currently working on solutions. In the meantime, there is no meaningful way to search Rwanda’s laws online. It is possible that a stronger financial commitment at the outset of the Rwanda LIP would have solved this. In the future, long-term sustainability should be one of the primary qualifications for creating an online system.

In the meantime, there are other ways of expanding Rwanda’s access to online legal information through databases of foreign law and secondary sources. Talking with law librarians in Rwanda, I learned that there is little, if any research instruction being delivered from law libraries. Even in the few libraries with subscription electronic databases, users aren’t necessarily being directed to relevant legal resources. Furthermore, law librarians generally collect, catalog and retrieve legal materials for users, rather than directing users to relevant sources. Users of legal information in Rwanda (and elsewhere) would be well served by being exposed to other online sources of legal information. Sites like the LII, WorldLII, and the Directory of Open Access Journals offers access to a wealth of free online primary and secondary materials that could be useful to researchers. Creating research guides and offering research instruction in these areas costs very little, and opens up countless resources that could be valuable to users of legal information in Rwanda, and elsewhere. Those working in justice sector development should investigate the possibility for this, in conjunction with creating online legal information systems of domestic laws.

Directional sign outside the Law Faculty at the Independent Institute of Lay Adventist of Kigali.

Directional sign outside the Law Faculty at the Independent Institute of Lay Adventist of Kigali.

Finally, the majority of those working as librarians in Rwanda’s law libraries have no formal instruction in library or information science. Nonetheless, it is remarkable that those with little or no formal training are competent librarians. Formal training or not, qualified librarians generally do not have the opportunity to offer research training to users of legal information. Treating law librarians as professionals would open up many opportunities to increase the capacity of users of legal information, and the online resources available.

 

IMG_1857Brian Anderson is a Reference Librarian and Assistant Professor at the Taggart Law Library at Ohio Northern University. His research involves the use of law libraries and legal information systems to support the rule of law in developing and transitional states. In September 2013 Brian presented two papers at the 2013 Law Via the Internet conference related to this topic; one related to civil society organizations and the use of the internet to strengthen the rule of law, and another about starting online legal information systems from scratch.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed.

There have been a series of efforts to create a national legislative data standard – one master XML format to which all states will adhere for bills, laws, and regulations.Those efforts have gone poorly.

Few states provide bulk downloads of their laws. None provide APIs. Although nearly all states provide websites for people to read state laws, they are all objectively terrible, in ways that demonstrate that they were probably pretty impressive in 1995. Despite the clear need for improved online display of laws, the lack of a standard data format and the general lack of bulk data has enabled precious few efforts in the private sector. (Notably, there is Robb Schecter’s WebLaws.org, which provides vastly improved experiences for the laws of California, Oregon, and New York. There was also a site built experimentally by Ari Hershowitz that was used as a platform for last year’s California Laws Hackathon.)

A significant obstacle to prior efforts has been the perceived need to create a single standard, one that will accommodate the various textual legal structures that are employed throughout government. This is a significant practical hurdle on its own, but failure is all but guaranteed by also engaging major stakeholders and governments to establish a standard that will enjoy wide support and adoption.

What if we could stop letting the perfect be the enemy of the good? What if we ignore the needs of the outliers, and establish a “good enough” system, one that will at first simply work for most governments? And what if we completely skip the step of establishing a standard XML format? Wouldn’t that get us something, a thing superior to the nothing that we currently have?

The State Decoded
This is the philosophy behind The State Decoded. Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The State Decoded is a free, open source program to put legal codes online, and it does so by simply skipping over the problems that have hampered prior efforts. The project does not aspire to create any state law websites on its own but, instead, to provide the software to enable others to do so.

Still in its development (it’s at version 0.4), The State Decoded leaves it to each implementer to gather up the contents of the legal code in question and interface it with the program’s internal API. This could be done via screen-scraping off of an existing state code website, modifying the parser to deal with a bulk XML file, converting input data into the program’s simple XML import format, or by a few other methods. While a non-trivial task, it’s something that can be knocked out in an afternoon, thus avoiding the need to create a universal data format and to persuade Wexis to provide their data in that format.

The magic happens after the initial data import. The State Decoded takes that raw legal text and uses it to populate a complete, fully functional website for end-users to search and browse those laws. By packaging the Solr search engine and employing some basic textual analysis, every law is cross-referenced with other laws that cite it and laws that are textually similar. If there exists a repository of legal decisions for the jurisdiction in question, that can be incorporated, too, displaying a list of the court cases that cite each section. Definitions are detected, loaded into a dictionary, and make the laws self-documenting. End users can post comments to each law. Bulk downloads are created, letting people get a copy of the entire legal code, its structural elements, or the automatically assembled dictionary. And there’s a REST-ful, JSON-based API, ready to be used by third parties. All of this is done automatically, quickly, and seamlessly. The time elapsed varies, depending on server power and the length of the legal code, but it generally takes about twenty minutes from start to finish.

The State Decoded is a free program, released under the GNU Public License. Anybody can use it to make legal codes more accessible online. There are no strings attached.

It has already been deployed in two states, Virginia and Florida, despite not actually being a finished project yet.

State Variations
The striking variations in the structures of legal codes within the U.S. required the establishment of an appropriately flexible system to store and render those codes. Some legal codes are broad and shallow (e.g., Louisiana, Oklahoma), while others are narrow and deep (e.g., Connecticut, Delaware). Some list their sections by natural sort order, some in decimal, a few arbitrarily switch between the two. Many have quirks that will require further work to accommodate.

For example, California does not provide a catch line for their laws, but just a section number. One must read through a law to know what it actually does, rather than being able to glance at the title and get the general idea. Because this is a wildly impractical approach for a state code, the private sector has picked up the slack – Westlaw and LexisNexis each write their own titles for those laws, neatly solving the problem for those with the financial resources to pay for those companies’ offerings. To handle a problem like this, The State Decoded either needs to be able to display legal codes that lack section titles, or pointedly not support this inferior approach, and instead support the incorporation of third-party sources of title. In California, this might mean mining the section titles used internally by the California Law Revision Commission, and populating the section titles with those. (And then providing a bulk download of that data, allowing it to become a common standard for California’s section titles.)

Many state codes have oddities like this. The State Decoded combines flexibility with open source code to make it possible to deal with these quirks on a case-by-case basis. The alternative approach is too convoluted and quixotic to consider.

Regulations
There is strong interest in seeing this software adapted to handle regulations, especially from cash-strapped state governments looking to modernize their regulatory delivery process. Although this process is still in an early stage, it looks like rather few modifications will be required to support the storage and display of regulations within The State Decoded.

More significant modifications would be needed to integrate registers of regulations, but the substantial public benefits that would provide make it an obvious and necessary enhancement. The present process required to identify the latest version of a regulation is the stuff of parody. To select a state at random, here are the instructions provided on Kansas’s website:

To find the latest version of a regulation online, a person should first check the table of contents in the most current Kansas Register, then the Index to Regulations in the most current Kansas Register, then the current K.A.R. Supplement, then the Kansas Administrative Regulations. If the regulation is found at any of these sequential steps, stop and consider that version the most recent.

If Kansas has electronic versions of all this data, it seems almost punitive not to put it all in one place, rather than forcing people to look in four places. It seems self-evident that the current Kansas Register, the Index to Regulations, the K.A.R. Supplement, and the Kansas Administrative Regulations should have APIs, with a common API atop all four, which would make it trivial to present somebody with the current version of a regulation with a single request. By indexing registers of regulations in the manner that The State Decoded indexes court opinions, it would at least be possible to show people all activity around a given regulation, if not simply show them the present version of it, since surely that is all that most people want.

A Tapestry of Data
In a way, what makes The State Decoded interesting is not anything that it actually does, but instead what others might do with the data that it emits. By capitalizing on the program’s API and healthy collection of bulk downloads, clever individuals will surely devise uses for state legal data that cannot presently be envisioned.

The structural value of state laws is evident when considered within the context of other open government data.

Major open government efforts are confined largely to the upper-right quadrant of this diagram – those matters concerned with elections and legislation. There is also some excellent work being done in opening up access to court rulings, indexing scholarly publications, and nascent work in indexing the official opinions of attorneys general. But the latter group cannot be connected to the former group without opening up access to state laws. Courts do not make rulings about bills, of course – it is laws with which they concern themselves. Law journals cite far more laws than they do bills. To weave a seamless tapestry of data that connects court decisions to state laws to legislation to election results to campaign contributions, it is necessary to have a source of rich data about state laws. The State Decoded aims to provide that data.

Next Steps
The most important next step for The State Decoded is to complete it, releasing a version 1.0 of the software. It has dozens of outstanding issues – both bug fixes and new features – so this process will require some months. In that period, the project will continue to work with individuals and organizations in states throughout the nation who are interested in deploying The State Decoded to help them get started.

Ideally, The State Decoded will be obviated by states providing both bulk data and better websites for their codes and regulations. But in the current economic climate, neither are likely to be prioritized within state budgets, so unfortunately there’s liable to remain a need for the data provided by The State Decoded for some years to come. The day when it is rendered useless will be a good day.

Waldo Jaquith is a website developer with the Miller Center at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia. He is a News Challenge Fellow with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and runs Richmond Sunlight, an open legislative service for Virginia. Jaquith previously worked for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, for which he developed Ethics.gov, and is now a member of the White House Open Data Working Group.
[Editor's Note: For topic-related VoxPopuLII posts please see: Ari Hershowitz & Grant Vergottini, Standardizing the World's Legal Information - One Hackathon At a Time; Courtney Minick, Universal Citation for State Codes; John Sheridan, Legislation.gov.uk; and Robb Schecter, The Recipe for Better Legal Information Services. ]

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed.

Supreme Court Building, IndiaIndian Kanoon is a free search engine for Indian law, providing access to more than 1.4 million central laws, and judgments from The Supreme Court of India, 24 High Courts, 17 law tribunals, constituent assembly debates, law commission reports, and a few law journals.

The development of Indian Kanoon began in the summer of 2007 and was publicly announced on 4 January 2008. Developing this service was a part-time project when I was working towards my doctorate degree in Computer Science at the University of Michigan under of guidance of Professor Farnam Jahanian of Arbor Networks fame. My work on Indian Kanoon continues to be a part-time affair because of my full-time job at Yahoo! India (Bangalore). Keep in mind, however, that I don’t have a law background,  nor am I an expert on information retrieval. My PhD thesis is entitled Context-Aware Network Security.

The Genesis

Indian Kanoon was started as a result of my curiosity about publicly available law data. In a blog article, Indian Kanoon – The road so far and the road ahead, written a year after the launch of Indian Kanoon, I explained how the project was started, how it ran during the first year, and the promises for the next year.

When I was considering starting Indian Kanoon, the idea of free Indian law search was not new. Prashant Iyengar, a law student from NALSAR Hyderabad, borgestotallibrary.jpgfaced the same problem. The law data was available but the search tools were far from satisfactory. So he started OpenJudis to provide search tools for Indian law data that were publicly available. He traces the availability of government data and the development of OpenJudis in detail in his VoxPopuLII post, Confessions of a Legal Info-holic.

Prashant Iyengar traces the genesis, successes, and impacts of Indian Kanoon in a more detailed fashion in his 2010 report, Free Access to Law in India – Is it Here to Stay?

The Goal

I have to make it clear that Indian Kanoon was started in a very informal fashion; the goals of Indian Kanoon were not well established at the outset. The broadest goal for the project came to me while I was writing the “About” page of Indian Kanoon. From this point on, the goals for Indian Kanoon started to crystallize. The second paragraph of this page summed it up as follows:

india-fear-justice.jpg“Even when laws empower citizens in a large number of ways, a significant fraction of the population is completely ignorant of their rights and privileges. As a result, common people are afraid of going to police and rarely go to court to seek justice. People continue to live under fear of unknown laws and a corrupt police.”

The Legal Thirst

During the first year after the launch of Indian Kanoon, one constant doubt that lingered in the minds of everyone familiar with the project (including me) concerned just how many people really needed a tool like Indian Kanoon. After all, this was a very specialized tool, which quite possibly would be useful only to lawyers or law students. But what constantly surprises me is the increasing number of users of the Website.  Indian Kanoon now has roughly half a million users per month, and the number keeps growing.

The obvious question is: Why is this legal thirst — this desire for access to full text of the law — arising in India now? I can think of umpteen reasons, such as an increase in the number of Indian citizens getting on the Internet, which is proving to be a better access medium than libraries; or that the general media awareness of law, or the spread of blogging culture, is fueling this desire.voxthirstgateofindia.jpg

On further reflection, I think there are two main drivers of this thirst for legal information. The first one is the resources now available for free and open access to law. Until very recently, most law resources in India were provided by libraries or Websites that charged a significant amount of money. In effect, they prohibited access to a significant portion of the population that wanted to look into legal issues. The average time spent per page on the Indian Kanoon Website is six minutes; this shows that most users actually read the legal text, and apparently find it easier to understand than they had previously expected. (This is precisely what I discovered when I began to read legal texts on a regular basis.)

The spread of the Internet, considered by itself, is not an important reason for the current thirst for law in India, in my view. Subscription-based legal Websites have been around for a while in India, but because of the pay-walls that they erected, none of them has been able to generate a strong user base. While the open nature of the Internet made it easy to compete against these providers, the availability of legal information free of charge — not just availability of the Internet — has removed huge barriers, both to start ups, and to access by the public.

The second major reason for this thirst for legal information — and for the traffic growth to Indian Kanoon — lies in technological advancement. Government websites and even private legal information providers in India are, generally, quite technologically deficient. To provide access to law documents, these providers typically have offered interfaces that are mere replicas of the library world. For example, our Supreme Court website allows searching for judgments by petitioner, respondent, case number, etc. While lawyers are often accustomed to using these interfaces, and of course understand these technical legal terms,indiasupreme_court_files.gif requiring prior knowledge of this kind of technical legal information as a prerequisite for performing a search raises a big barrier to access by common people. Further, the free-text search engines provided by these Websites have no notion of relevance. So while the technology world has significantly advanced in the areas of text search and relevance, government-based — and, to some extent, private, fee-based — legal resources in India have remained tied to stone-age technology.

Better Technology Improves Access

Allowing users to try and test any search terms that they have in mind, and providing a relevant set of links in response to their queries, significantly reduces the need for users to understand technical legal information as a prerequisite for reading and comprehending the law of the land. So, overall, I think advances in technology, some of which have been introduced by Indian Kanoon, are responsible for fostering a desire to read the law, and for affording more people access to the legal resources of India.

The Road Ahead

Considering, however, that fear of unknown laws remains in the minds of large numbers of the Indian people, now is not the time to gloat over the initial success of IndianKanoon. The task of Indian Kanoon is far from complete, and certainly more needs to be done to make searching for legal information by ordinary people easy and effective.

Sushant Sinha runs the search engine Indian Kanoon and currently works on the document processing team for Yahoo! India. Earlier he earned his PhD in Computer Science from the University of Michigan under the guidance of Professor Farnam Jahanian. He received his bachelor and masters degrees in computer science from IIT Madras, Chennai and was born and brought up in Jamshedpur, India. He was recently named one of “18 Young Innovators under 35 in India” by MIT’s Technology Review India.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editor in chief is Robert Richards.