LEGISLATION

The Laws of South Africa free online

Audrey Lenoge, librarian in the Law Library of the University of Pretoria
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Free online legislation is an important source for South Africa and the international community with an interest in the country.

Exactly a year after the website was first made public, South Africa’s first free online legislation source, Laws of South Africa, has undergone further consolidations and the collect-ion of online material has grown. This project, which was opened to the public by Judge Edwin Cameron, well-known Justice of South Africa’s Constitutional Court, in September last year with the aim of providing free internet access to anyone looking for reliable and updated South African Legislation, provides the fully amended current versions of the Acts and the Regulations. There are now more than 200 Acts and their Regulations available, says the Head of the University of Pretoria’s Oliver R Tambo Law Library, Shirley Gilmore.

The website, Laws of South Africa, is an open-access source providing updated Acts and Regulations for anyone to make use of in their daily lives and businesses, and is managed by the University of Pretoria’s Oliver R Tambo Law Library. The website is based on the collection and facilities of the library, and has been funded by the Constitutional Court Trust to date.

“Over the last couple of years legislation has increasingly been made available in developed countries. It simply means that one can take any point in time and find the version of the Act in question that would apply at that time,” says Gilmore.

Gilmore says the website is a work in progress. A year ago, at the time it was first available to the public, they had a total of 50 Acts on the website and now there are 220.

“Both the Acts and the Regulations are published, and are updated weekly from the Government Gazettes. The goal is to provide the most important Acts first, and we have made considerable progress in the last year in this regard. As time passes and Acts are added, the website becomes even more useful.

“Before this initiative, up-to-date, ‘consolidated versions’ of legislation were not available to the public and could only be obtained from commercial publishers. Principal Acts and amendment Acts available on government websites do not present the laws as they are currently in force.

The idea for the website — a joint effort with the University managing and developing the database and providing the resources, and the Trust providing seed-funding to pay editors salaries — came about in 2012 when the Constitutional Court Trust was looking for someone to undertake the project. At the same time the Law Library was looking at the feasibility of the same idea.

“As a law librarian, I teach people how to find legal information and because of this it has always been ‘the elephant in the room’ for me. Why was there no free and easy access to the laws that emanate from Parliament? How were people supposed to work and live according to the law if it was so difficult and costly to find and use?”

Gilmore says she believes that there are a great many businesses that need free access to the Acts and Regulations that pertain to their work (Basic Conditions of Employment Act, Employment Equity Act, Companies Act and so on). “For them, free access to reliable South African legislation, through our website, is a very big help, as the great majority do not have access to the commercially published material. This has been confirmed to us repeatedly in the feedback we receive from people using our website.”

Regarding the importance of having the legislation freely accessible to all, Kevin Daly, Manager of the Constitutional Court Trust, says free online access to South African legislation is important for a number of reasons.

1. Business and the man-in-the-street

South African legislation governs the lives of people and business. Having easy access to reliable and updated laws is a way of empowering people in their everyday lives and in the running of their businesses. Simply put, people need this information.

2. Rule of Law

Both compliance and accountability are facilitated by access to law. Citizens must know the law in order to comply, but are simultaneously empowered to contest abuse of power and hold government accountable when laws are readily and freely available. The Global Free Access to Law movement was founded on the principle that citizens in any jurisdiction must have free access to the laws that govern them. This principle was confirmed at the 2008 Hague Conference on Private International Law which resolved that States should make available “without cost to users, legislation and relevant case law online.” Such information should be “authoritative, up to date, and also include access to law previously in force.” This (and other guiding principles) was subsequently agreed on, and endorsed by a joint conference with the European Commission in 2012.

3. Foreign trade and investment facilitated by access to law

Commerce is likewise facilitated by access to law. Foreign interest in particular can be stimulated by ready access to trade and investment laws. Conversely, the lack of access may pose a challenge and discourage or delay new ventures. South Africa’s interest is not well served by what is readily available. An investor seeking, for example, the latest version of the South African Companies Act is faced with a daunting task. A search for the Companies Act on the South Africa Government Online portal www.gov.za will yield an assortment of documents including the Act of 2008 as well as the amendment Act of 2011, which is a sizeable document, revealing changes that apply to virtually all the sections of the main 2008 Act. There is, however, no copy of the Companies Act of 2008 as amended by the amendment Act of 2011 and therefore no copy of the current legislation. The Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (CIPC), the legislated administrator of this Act, lists only the Act of 2008 without its amendments and does not even list the amending Act of 2011 in its legal repository.

4. Consolidation phase

The project aims to produce consolidated versions of all Acts of Parliament (approximately 1 000 Acts) currently in force, and subordinated legislation (mostly regulations) promulgated under these. As a by-product of this exercise historical (point-in-time) versions are produced and published. This phase will take an estimated five to seven years to complete.

However, Gilmore told Opportunity that the project will require additional funding from the end of 2014, and needs investors, as well as the business community’s support, if it is to keep flourishing. “The University provides the resources, management, office space and, very importantly, the database development and IT support, but we do still require contributions to pay the highly skilled editorial staff. We will need R700 000 for 2015 to be able to keep providing this service to the public,” says Gilmore.

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