Making law available free online in Africa

14 September 2023 | Story Langa Khanyile. Photo Je’nine May. Read time >10 min.
Mariya Badeva from UCT’s Faculty of Law.
Mariya Badeva from UCT’s Faculty of Law.

AfricanLII and Laws.Africa director, Mariya Badeva, recently partnered with the governments of Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Tanzania to provide technical assistance and capacity building to help provide free access to law online.

The law, and its practice, is fundamentally inaccessible for the ordinary citizen in many African countries. UCT News spoke to Badeva, who advocates for the free digitisation of legal documents. She is the director of the AfricanLII programme of the Democratic Governance and Rights Unit at the Department of Public Law at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the deputy director of the iNtaka Centre for Law and Technology, also at UCT’s Faculty of Law.

Langa Khanyile (LK): Please touch on your expertise in providing technical assistance and capacity building for ordinary people to access the law online free of charge.

Mariya Badeva (MB): A few years ago, I co-founded with Greg Kempe a non-profit organisation called Laws.Africa, which develops legal technology for the digitisation and publication of the law. I completed my LLM in Law and IT at Stockholm University back in the day when technology lawyers were learning to code web pages in HTML, and part of the LLM course covered the development and management of legal information systems. I took that knowledge and applied it to my work on free access to law first in South Africa, working for the Constitutional Court Trust on the establishment of SAFLII in 2005, and then on rolling out the AfricanLII programme across the continent.

LK: Please talk to us about the scale, geographically speaking, of the work that you do.

MB: Our programme supports the publication of the law in 15 African countries and the entirety of the African Union. We also partner with organs of the African Union and publish their documentation online, which is very useful to those who seek to understand how the African Union impacts on our daily lives.


“Law shapes how we interact with our government and how we hold the government to account on all levels.”

LK: Why is there a need for accessing free legal information online in Africa?

MB: Law is foundational to our societies. You need the law to open and operate a business, resolve a dispute with your neighbour, or get social security assistance. Law shapes how we interact with our government and how we hold the government to account on all levels. When this information is expensive or only available in print, a large part of our society, especially the most vulnerable members, simply cannot afford to realise their rights. Free access to legal information is about democratising access to the law and levelling the playing field, and ensuring a more fair and equitable society.

LK: How is UCT faring with regards to making an impact in Africa on this front and where would you say it ranks on the continent?


“UCT is a pioneer in open access to the law on the African continent.”

MB: UCT is a pioneer in open access to the law on the African continent. The Open Law Africa programme is the only comprehensive programme in Africa that provides a full set of measures to [equip] African governments with the technology, know-how and programmatic support to enable publication of the law in a sustainable manner. Through UCT, and with support from our funders, we are serving millions of Africans with free, accurate and up-to-date laws. The impact on the legal system, on academic research, economic development, and human rights is tremendous. And UCT’s Faculty of Law is at the forefront of this endeavour.

LK: How has the digital age transformed the way legal resources are accessed and utilised by law students and professionals?

MB: We can do more – and more efficiently. Digital is the primary channel of accessing legal materials. It is cheaper, has wider reach, and allows us to transform the way the legal profession and legal education operates. Digital law books and guides with embedded legislative provisions are updated as soon as the law is changed. This is now a reality on LawLibrary, one of our websites that services the South African legal community. [However], there is one critical aspect of law going digital that is underestimated – that is popularising law beyond legal audiences. Partially because law was expensive and available just in print, it was well known to be the exclusive domain of lawyers, often out of reach and beyond the understanding of the very citizens it is meant to serve. Take our Constitution Compass application – using a machine-readable version of the South African constitution from Laws.Africa – summaries and guides prepared by our UCT law students, and with support from funders, we have created a plain-language guide to the South African constitution, which we are now rolling out in a pilot project at Cape Town schools. Doing this project digitally has meant lower cost, a greater potential reach and an unprecedented opportunity to bring the law to the people.

LK: What are some of the challenges people might face when trying to access legal information online, especially when seeking free resources?

MB: There are broadly two types of challenges, namely finding and ascertaining that people are reading the current law or the law that applies to their situation at the point in time the legal issue arose, and understanding how the legal sources and provisions fit together to address their issue comprehensively. We work on both sets of challenges, with an initial focus on ensuring that governments can provide comprehensive digital access to the law of the land.

LK: Are there any specific tools or technologies that you suggest to students or professionals to enhance their online legal research experience?

MB: The perfect single legal research tool does not exist. This is what I tell students and professionals. Certainly, ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence applications, especially as they relate to African legal content, are unreliable. So, my recommendation would be that students and professionals access authoritative resources recommended to them by professional law librarians and backed by institutions with a proven track record in legal publication. This, coupled with the training and guidance on legal research provided by our law faculties and law libraries, should amount to a winning legal research experience.

LK: Please share some success stories or positive outcomes resulting from the work that UCT is doing in pioneering technical assistance in accessing free law online?

MB: In mid-July 2023, we held an implementation workshop in Dodoma, Tanzania, with the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs of Tanzania; the Office of the Attorney-General; the Judiciary of Tanzania; the Law Reform Commission of Tanzania; the Tanganyika Law Society; and the GIZ. Until this year, TanzLII had been a collaboration exclusively with the Judiciary of Tanzania. Everyone, from the Minister of Justice of Tanzania to judges and registrars of the Judiciary of Tanzania, recognised the transformative effect that TanzLII has had on the legal and justice sector of the country. Judges went as far as to say that they cannot do their work if TanzLII would disappear. A truly fascinating input then came from the Tanganyika Law Society when they stood up to share that, following an engagement with AfricanLII, they chose to establish a law reporting project with a commercial publisher. That project did not reach its promised potential. Against the backdrop of TanzLII’s success, AfricanLII’s approach to the publication of the law and providing technical assistance to government (the Tanzanian Judiciary) works, and it works in Africa. In the words of the representative of the Law Society: “They were wrong. The way forward is AfricanLII’s approach to digital law!” What I find most gratifying, however, is reading the feedback we receive from ordinary citizens, law students, court personnel, lawyers and the media. We try to document as many of our success stories as possible on our Open Law Africa community page.

LK: In other African countries, the medium of instruction is French or Portuguese, for example, and most people in South Africa do not speak English. In what languages are these resources available? 

MB: The resources are published in the original language they are produced in. For all common law countries on the continent, this is English. For civil law countries, [it] will be French or Portuguese. However, African governments are increasingly investing in translating the law into indigenous languages and in creating plain-language guides to the law. In Tanzania, we are partnering with the Law Reform Commission and with the Ministry of Constitutional and Legal Affairs to digitise and publish kiSwahili versions of laws and accompanying kiSwahili plain-language guides. Laws.Africa’s systems can support publication in all African languages. As a result, we do publish in Afrikaans, kiSwahili, isiXhosa, isiZulu and Arabic, among other languages. The Constitution Compass app mentioned earlier is available in isiXhosa and isiZulu, alongside English. We are looking for funding to make it available in Afrikaans, too.”

LK: What advice would you give to aspiring law students or legal professionals who want to improve their skills in accessing and utilising online legal resources effectively?

MB: Use the platforms – it is free! Subscribe to our newsletters for tips and tricks on electronic legal research and drop us an email if you get stuck. We are always available to help!

LK: Looking ahead, how do you envisage the future of accessing legal information online, and what trends do you think will shape this landscape?

MB: I see a future where Africa leads in legal tech solutions for the legal information domain; where governments can publish the laws timeously and effectively on an open access basis, and Africans are able to create a thriving legal tech ecosystem that serves the needs of the continent and its development.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.