By Vallery Bayly
Accessing legal information is critical to enforcing rights. This is as true in Canada as it is everywhere else in the world. People need to know what their rights are before they can even think about trying to enforce them. Human rights defenders, and particularly lawyers, also need to be able to access legal information in order to protect and enforce human rights.
Over the past twelve weeks of my internship with Avocats sans frontières Canada, I’ve worked on a few projects related to the legal framework (the justice system and domestic laws) of other countries, particularly Mali. Often during my internship I have found myself frustrated with the lack of availability of basic legal information. For a Canadian law student, the idea of not being able to access legal information online is unthinkable. But when I look for information about Malian law, it can be difficult – often impossible – to find even basic legal texts. Even when information is available online, it’s often out of date or incomplete.
In Canada, it’s fairly easy for lawyers, law students, human rights defenders, and citizens to access vital legal information. The Supreme Court puts all of its jurisprudence online, and laws are accessible through federal, provincial, and municipal government websites. There’s also CanLII, which offers free access to cases and legislation.
There is nothing like CanLII in Mali. A very small number of cases are available online. A few of the most important laws – like the Civil Code and the Penal Code – are available, though generally finding them requires some digging. However, some of my research ended when I was unable to find any relevant legal information online. If this is frustrating for me, sitting in an office in Quebec, I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for the people who really need this information. And this isn’t only the case in Mali – in many places, legal information is difficult or impossible to find online.
It goes without saying that it is not enough that legal information simply be available. While lawyers can make use of cases and laws in their original form, they must also be available in a form that is accessible and comprehensible to the people who need the information most. Literacy rates can affect the accessibility of legal information. Language barriers can also exist. For example, almost 50% of the population of Mali speaks Bambara as their first language, and there are a variety of other languages spoken. The official language – the language of the legal system – is French. These factors can make even the legal information that is available inaccessible to the majority of the population.
This is why many projects aimed at reinforcing human rights and increasing access to justice focus on providing legal information in an accessible format – although access to justice is a multi-faceted problem. Even if information is available, making use of the information can be difficult if courts are difficult or expensive to access.
There are no easy solutions to these problems, and many of them exist in Canada as well, albeit to a lesser extent. But what I’ve learned over the course of my internship is that we’re incredibly lucky to have free, easy access to so much legal information.