A Comprehensive Free Access Legal Information System for Europe
On Line Access to Legal Information, Firenze, Italy, May 2011
18 Pages Posted: 2 Mar 2012 Last revised: 27 Aug 2014
Date Written: February 29, 2012
The rule of law is one of the constitutive, foundational values of the European Union. The rule of law and access to justice and, as a consequence, access to law related information, go hand in hand as necessary conditions for a working democracy.
Significant contributions to access to legal information have come from the “Free Access to Law Movement” (FALM), a loose affiliation of 40 members (often called ‘legal information institutes’ or LIIs) from countries across the world. Half of them collaborate in the operation of three portals for the searching of multi-LII databases: AsianLII (28 Asian jurisdictions); CommonLII (50 jurisdictions, members of the Commonwealth); and WorldLII (all databases from collaborating LIIs, over 1,000 databases). AustLII (Australasian Legal Information Institute) coordinates the operation of these three portals and runs them from its servers.
‘Free access to law’ is something of an enigmatic concept because it does not only mean ‘access free of charge to users’, although that is an essential element of it. The other key freedom involved is the freedom of LIIs to republish ‘public’ legal information (legislation, cases etc) in their own way, and the complementary obligation of governments to make the data available to them so that they can do so. The Montreal Declaration on Free Access to Law (2002) is the basis of collaboration between FALM members. This Declaration, and its elaboration (in terms of proposed obligations of States) made at an expert meeting called by the Hague Conference on Private International Law in 2008, is the basis of the proposals put forward in this paper.
There is as yet relatively little European legal content searchable through the LII free access portals (except from the UK and Ireland). The European contribution to the cooperative effort to provide worldwide free access to law is as yet more limited than could be expected, given its significance in the development of the world’s legal systems, and its technical sophistication.
This paper surveys the complexity of European law, both (a) the law of European supra-national institutions; and (b) European national law. It considers the existing websites that attempt to facilitate searching for legal information across multiple European jurisdictions, and concludes that only those that centralize the data they are searching seem to work well.
The paper then outlines the European Law Project, an initiative AustLII through the World Legal Information Institute (WorldLII), supported by the Australian Research Council, which aims to expand as far as possible the range of European legal information (legislation, treaties, cases, law reform materials and open legal scholarship) available through the WorldLII portal. The initial version is available on WorldLII. The potential for the creation of a European-operated, coordinated free-access platform (a ‘EuroLII’) is also discussed briefly.
Keywords: free access to law, legal information institute, LII, open content, legal information, legal information systems, legal information retrieval
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