Article 19 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights sets out the freedom to seek and receive information. This is particularly essential in the case of public legal information. In order to understand, engage and influence, people need first to be able to access the laws, regulations and standards that govern them.

Governments have a responsibility to provide such access, and so support transparency and accountability, civil engagement and a just society, in line with Sustainable Development Goal 16.10. 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 statues, codes, judgements, and other pubic legal information.

Digital Opportunities, but Also Risks

In addition to the opportunities it creates, 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, effective strategies are necessary in order to ensure that law is easily accessible, trustworthy, and there for generations to come. Law librarians, thanks to their experience, can offer indispensable guidance in this process, in order to maximise the benefits and minimise the risks associated.

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.

In response, IFLA has published a Statement, calling on governments to ensure that there is free and equal access to public legal information (including third party standards where these are referenced), that governments design and implement effective preservation strategies, and that they incorporate technology-based authentication tools so that citizens can be sure that what they are reading is genuine.

IFLA encourages its members and others to cite this statement and background research in support of positive change at local, national, regional and international levels.

For more, please see the full IFLA Statement (also available in Spanish and in German), as well as annexes setting out national and international provisions in the area.