The IFLA Statement on Government Provision of Public Legal Information in the Digital Age, endorsed by the IFLA Governing Board in December 2016, is directed at the governments of countries around the world. Its message concerns online publishing practices of governments as they make their primary legal materials available on the Internet, specifically the issues of access, authentication, and preservation. Regarding these matters, some countries are doing an excellent job while others still need to acknowledge and address their new responsibilities in the digital age. In this statement, IFLA calls on national governments to provide no-fee, equal access to public legal information, to incorporate technology-based authentication tools to protect the integrity and trustworthiness of the content, and to implement effective strategies for long-term preservation and public access. 

This 2016 policy statement is the result of years of focus and effort on the part of the relatively new Law Libraries Section (which was officially recognized by IFLA in 2005). The statement was developed and brought to the attention of the Governing Board by several members of the section’s Standing Committee. They did this in consultation with IFLA Governing Board member Frederick Zarndt, whose support and encouragement for several years was an important factor in the ultimate success of their efforts. 

The Law Libraries Section is now eager to enlist the advice and expertise of members of the Library and Research Services for Parliaments Section. Guidance is needed on how IFLA members can best bring the issues addressed in the statement to the attention of appropriate officials in the parliaments of countries around the world. So far, the statement has been translated into Spanish, German, and French.

New Responsibilities for a New Situation

As noted in the Statement’s introduction, there has been a change in the responsibility of national governments to provide “authentic and official versions of legal materials,” including statutes, case law, and regulations. In the past era of print-only publication of public legal information by governments, libraries acted as repositories and keepers of the print volumes that contained this information, ensuring that the official content would be preserved, unchanged, for future use. In the current digital age, with governments now replacing print publication with digital provision of the same content, the situation has changed. This has created a new responsibility for the content providers: to provide access to authentic digital versions of public legal materials and to maintain and preserve that content for long-term use.

Some government entities have taken the necessary steps to address this matter, including France, the European Union, and the United States. However, there are a number of other governments around the world that have not yet acknowledged their new role in any meaningful way. In the words of the Statement, “…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.”

As revealed by study and investigation conducted by members of the Law Libraries Section, governments of countries around the world vary greatly in their recognition of these key issues and the steps being employed to address them as they digitize their legal materials and post them online. Some countries are doing a fine job of confronting the issues and putting procedures in place to address them. Others are failing to do so, despite the fact that neglecting to consider the key issues of access, authentication, and preservation for long-term use poses a risk to sustainable access to public legal information in the digital age.

IFLA’s Response: the Statement on Government Provision of Public Legal Information

The IFLA Statement provides the following recommendations:

  • Ensure that all public legal information produced in digital format is available to the public on an equitable, no-fee basis.
  • Protect official publications of law in a digital format through authentication using technological measures, in order to ensure that the content is trustworthy, and make this clear to people.
  • Incorporate technology-based authentication measures as part of the creation of online sources of public legal information rather than adding such technology later. Especially in the case of developing countries, addressing this concern from the start will save time and money in the long run.
  • Develop and implement effective policies and programmes for the preservation of trustworthy legal materials in digital format, in partnership, as appropriate, with libraries, archives, or other memory institutions. When adopting new technologies to make legal information available digitally, ensure that these are built in such a way as to facilitate preservation for long-term public accessibility.
  • Make preserved materials permanently accessible to the public without charge.
  • Incorporate strategies for providing online access to public legal information into national development plans to implement the UN 2030 Agenda.

The Statement is accompanied by two annexes, the first providing references and supporting documents and the second highlighting examples of three countries currently using authentication technology in order to protect the primary legal content that they provide online.

Promoting the Statement and its Principles

Effective promotion of the statement – particularly with governments – will be essential if it is to have its desired impact. One venue in which IFLA has already used the statement is in its discussions with UNESCO regarding the Sustainable Development Goals. Governments have a responsibility to provide access to public legal information in order to support transparency and accountability, civil engagement and a just society, in line with Sustainable Development Goal 16.10.

IFLA has asked the ARTICLE 19 organization to post the statement as a resource on their website. This NGO takes its name from Article 19 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which sets out the freedom to seek and receive information. This is particularly essential in the case of public legal information.

The IFLA statement also seems very relevant to the ongoing process of consultation on the European Union’s Public Sector Information (PSI) Directive. A particularly relevant connection might be with their Feb. 2017 research report, On-Line Publication of Court Decisions in the EU: Report of the Policy Group of the Project ‘Building on the European Case Law Identifier’.

The statement has also been brought to the attention of the Open Government Partnership, in hopes that it will be a useful resource for this organization of 70 member countries that are in agreement on the importance of citizen understanding and participation in government, as signatories of the Open Government Declaration.

If you have suggestions or ideas regarding promotion of the statement or advocacy for its goals, please contact: Stephen Wyber, IFLA Manager, Policy and Advocacy ([email protected]) and Sarah Holterhoff, Standing Committee Member of IFLA Law Libraries Section ([email protected]).