In this post, I would like to highlight the barriers to accessing legal information and ways we can help remove them.
Let’s begin by clarifying the difference between accessibility and availability. Material is accessible when barriers to the content are removed and they can be used by as many people as possible, these barriers can take several forms such as financial or technical limits to access. Material is available when people can easily use it, because it is free of legal and policy restrictions.
A legal document can be accessible, but not available. For example, a member of the public can go online and find the full-text of a relevant document published by the government, but because of Crown copyright they are unable to share or re-use that information without going through, what can sometimes be, a lengthy and daunting process of seeking permission (all the while it already being paid for through public tax dollars). A legal document might be available, but not accessible too. For example, a lawyer working in a remote area might see in an online library catalogue that a print book they need is available, but they live in a remote area where the library is difficult to get to.
You can also encounter multiple barriers at once. Imagine you are a self-represented litigant and are up against an experienced lawyer. The SLR is at a disadvantage because they might not have access to the same material. Even if they find a way to access the same information, they might have to pay to access it, and it could be difficult to figure out how to use it towards their case without having formal legal training. On top of that, if English isn’t your first language, you may need to hire a translator.
It is certainly a thin line between accessibility and availability. Wherever you stand, the important thing is that we are aware of the barriers that exist and do our part to try and remove them. Here is a list of more possible barriers with some examples:
- Physical – Obstacles relating to the physical environment that prevent people from accessing legal information (e.g. A building that doesn’t have a ramp for wheelchair access, or the equipment needed to print materials is broken or outdated. This could also be related to a lack of resources to process requests for information)
- Geographical – Something that prevents you from easily getting from point A to point B. (e.g. Living in a rural area where there is limited access to transportation, or not being able to travel somewhere altogether)
- Technological – Barriers to information relating to technological infrastructure. (e.g. Not having a digital device to access online information, or having a device, but having weak or no internet access. This could also be not having the software to open or save certain digital formats, or the material not being compatible with screen readers.)
- Financial – Perhaps the most widely discussed barrier. Financial barriers occur when cost makes it difficult for someone to access the legal information they need. (e.g. hitting paywalls, or legal fees for assistance in interpreting legal information)
- Legal and policy constraints – This includes copyright mechanisms and restrictive licensing practices. (e.g. documents marked as classified, or difficulty locking down permissions.)
- Language – You could consider this an access barrier, but for legal information I think it’s important to highlight this as an availability challenge. More legal information is being made publicly accessible now than ever before, but this does not mean that it is always easy to use. (e.g. Material written using complicated legal jargon, or it not being available in your prefered language)
Publishing accessible legal information is one way to help remove barriers to legal information because it allows for free access and fewer restrictions to not just case law and legislation, but books, law textbooks, reports, grey literature, legal scholarship and more.
There are many factors affecting the publishing cycle in the legal environment that inhibit open legal publishing from moving forward. The examples listed above illustrate some common barriers, but it is not comprehensive. I think these additional factors deserve a post of their own, so stay tuned.
If you have examples of other barriers that you see or face in your work with legal information, please feel free to comment below or tweet me @a_lazear to continue the discussion.