The Open legal information movement dates back (at least) to 1992, with the creation of what became the Legal Information Institute at Cornell. In Africa the Southern African Legal Information Institutes hosts court decisions from most Southern African jurisdictions (Angola to Zimbabwe), while the African Legal Information Institute assists and supports new and existing legal information institutes across Africa. I am fan of these efforts. They do a great job under severe resource constraints. There is quite a range of primary legal sources and its hard for any one project to cover them all. That is why it is encouraging to see the emergence of Open ByLaws South Africa.
The project, pioneered by by Greg Kemp currently hosts Cape Town by-laws. What has Greg excited is the possibilities that making laws digital holds:
“We can show the definitions of specifically defined terms in the context of where they’re used. We can have multiple presentations for each by-law: one for a smartphone, one for a laptop, a PDF, plain-text, a website or even a book. Those forms can evolve and adapt as their demand changes. … We can now use machine or crowd-sourced translation to translate them into the rest of South Africa’s 11 official languages.”
Another set of rather different possibilities is available for legislation before it become legislation. Brazil pioneered this approach with the Marco Civil, an online forum with a mandate from the Brazilian Congress to crowdsource the development of an ‘online Bill of Rights’. Inspired by this approach the Open Government Foundation in the United States has created the Madison project, which makes available Federal Bills for comment and indeed remix. The project doesn’t have the same mandate which the Marco Civil was given but should enable experts and interested people to assist in improving legislation. That is of course dependant on the extent to which popular and expert voices can be heard in the political process. Although a admirable example of best practise in digital co-writing in a multi-stakeholder environment it has been stalled by vested interests. That shouldn’t be read as a defect of such inititiaves, to the extent that they demonstrate the capture of political processes they are successful in creating pressure for change.