Tag Archives: access to justice

Know Your Rights: Libraries and Access to Legal Information

A recognition of the importance of access to information is at the heart of the work of libraries, and the first of IFLA’s core values.

This access refers to all types of information, from all sources. Given their focus on the wellbeing of users, what matters in the end is how the information provided can improve lives, regardless of its form or source.

However, the first thing that comes to mind for many, when talking about access to information, is legal information – knowledge about the law, and laws, that govern our lives. The role of libraries in guaranteeing the possibility for all to find, read and make use of this sort of information is as great as for any other.

To mark the International Day for the Universal Access to Information, which this year focuses on the importance of leaving no-one behind – this blog summarises how libraries make the difference.


Empowering and Emancipating

The replacement of the rule of the strongest by the rule of law is certainly a positive thing. It has – at least in principle – meant that everyone is equal before the law, and that the simple fact that someone is more powerful or richer than someone else does not mean that they have better treatment.

Of course in reality, this is not always the case. A key challenge is access to the law itself. If only those with money can afford a lawyer who knows their way around the legal system, there is a clear imbalance.

But even more fundamentally than this, people need to know their rights in order to be able to enforce them. Without access to legal information – for example for housing tenants facing the threat of eviction, for migrants unsure of what support they can claim, or for employees facing reorganisation of the workplace – there is no chance of access to justice.

Similarly, while democracy creates the possibility for everyone to take part in decision-making, this will not be a reality if only the better off can take the time or have the tools to follow and influence discussions. Once again, easy and effective means of accessing information are vital.

These are both areas where the core strength of libraries – providing access to information in a way that best suits the needs of the user – come into their own.


The Importance of Partnerships

Fulfilling this potential does of course require skill and capacity on the part of librarians. There are some libraries focused purely on providing legal help to the public, but this is not the case everywhere.

Elsewhere, different types of library – dedicated law libraries, university libraries, parliamentary libraries, public libraries – each have their own strengths, but on their own are not always well placed to respond to a public need for legal information.

Combining these strengths offers exciting possibilities however. For example, the State Library of New South Wales in Australia helped set up the Legal Information Access Centre over 25 years ago. This turns the information they hold centrally into tools and services for people often in the most vulnerable situations.

In India, law libraries are engaged in outreach programmes via public libraries in order to help many more people find out about their rights as a first step to accessing the legal system. In Croatia, not only does cooperation allow ordinary citizens to get hold of the latest legal information, but it also makes it easier to access legal professionals.

Similarly, as highlighted in an IFLA article last year for Democracy Day, libraries are creating new partnerships to help people track the work of governments and legislators, and so ensure that democracy really works.


The subject of access to legal information is a great example of how foundational information is to any effort to ensure that people can enjoy their rights and improve their lives. Libraries – in particular when they join forces – can play a central role in helping give everyone this possibility.

Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions: Libraries and SDG 16

Justice, Transparency, Participation, Access - Libraries Deliver Across SDG16

Starting today and continuing to Wednesday, governments, UN agencies and non-governmental organisations involved in delivering SDG16 are meeting in Rome.

In advance of the focus on this Goal in New York at the High Level Political Forum, this is an opportunity to take stock, to explore where progress is needed, and to see what solutions exist. The results will inform discussions among ministers.

IFLA is here, with the recently released Development and Access to Information report, underlining the need to focus on access to information, and the help that libraries provide in achieving this goal.


The Good Governance Goal

SDG16 itself is as complex as it is fundamental. It is a foundational goal which enables efforts – and success – in all others. It includes everything from reducing violence – by states and individuals – to promoting democracy and fundamental freedoms, including access to information.

It is also controversial, with it unsure until late in the process whether it would be included at all. Many states, it is true, did not want the way they managed themselves and their policies to be in the spotlight.

Four particular targets under SDG16 are relevant to libraries. This blog sets out why, and what libraries are doing to achieve them:


Access to Justice

SDG 16.3: Promote the rule of law at the national and international levels and ensure equal access to justice for all 

Too often, laws that are meant to protect people and their rights do not work because it is only some members of society who can enforce them. Bureaucratic and cultural barriers, as well as cost are major issues.

A further key concern is information about justice. Laws are often long and complicated, and even the best educated are unlikely to have read or understood them. Those who are most at risk of discrimination or disadvantage are particularly vulnerable.

As such, access to legal information is a key means of ensuring that more people can enjoy the rights they have. Libraries – especially through partnerships between law libraries and public libraries – can make a major contribution to ensuring that ordinary people can learn about their rights.

A great example comes from New South Wales, Australia, where for over 25 years, public libraries have been working with the Legal Information Access Centre at the State Library. Through direct consultation, and easy-read materials, this has made access to justice a reality for many who would otherwise have been left out.


Accountability and Transparency

SDG 16.6: Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels

Governments have a duty to their citizens to make best use of their potential to improve lives. Yet too often, there are failures or worse, with public money mis-spent, or powers misused.

These problems can be reduced (or alternative governments chosen) when there is transparency about how governments and institutions are working. Without this, citizens have nowhere to start in terms of holding those in power to account.

There is a move towards publishing ‘open government’ information, around decision-making, budgeting and spending. New platforms are being designed and put online, and citizens given the possibility to use them to come to their own conclusions.

However, simply creating the possibility is not enough. Those without internet access or technology are immediately excluded, as are those who do not know about the possibilities, and those who lack the skills and confidence to use them.

Libraries can play a key role in overcoming this situation, letting people know about what is possible, and helping them to make use of the new rights. An example from Kenya, where many people still cannot get online through a laptop of desktop, underlines what can be done.


Better Decision-Making

SDG 16.7: Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels

As highlighted above, governments have an important responsibility to their people to take the right decisions, not least concerning public money.

These decisions are significant, often affecting millions of people, and millions of dollars. It is broadly accepted that the best decisions are based upon wide consultation and use of evidence.

Yet as policies become more interconnected and complicated, it is not necessarily easy to achieve this, either for the governments drafting laws, or the parliaments debating them.

Libraries have a key role to play here, providing access to information for decision-makers. They bring a unique ability to collect and make available information in a form and at a time that really supports the work of governments and parliaments.

The work of IFLA’s sections on Government Libraries and Parliamentary Libraries offer many examples of what libraries can achieve in supporting responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making.


Access to Information

SDG 16.10: Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements

SDG 16.10 has been at the heart of IFLA’s work around the Sustainable Development Goals. Complementing the targets highlighted above that focus on access to information about government, it stresses the need for access to information in general.

Just as this goal has long been at the heart of IFLA’s SDG engagement, the mission it refers to is central to the mission of libraries in general.

Through providing information in whatever form or from whatever source is relevant, libraries help people to seize opportunities and take better decisions. This access is therefore a key part of a development framework focused on empowering individuals to make their own choices.

Despite predictions of the demise of libraries in a digital age, their role has arguably been strengthened, as the importance of skills, physical spaces, and a welcoming environment have become clearer.

The Development and Access to Information Report, of which the second edition was launched last week, offers many examples, across the SDGs, of how this access makes a difference.