Access to law in the french-speaking world: A renewed strategy


Bobson Coulibaly, Pierre-Paul Lemyre, François Viens

Free access to legal material offers many advantages for participating countries. Free access reinforces national legal institutions while also ensuring the rule of law and strengthening democratic ideals. An increased visibility of law also bolsters its dissemination.

Moreover, access to law eliminates legal insecurity, a factor which can threaten economic prosperity by reducing outside investments. The least expensive method to achieve these goals is the electronic distribution of legal documents.

By the mid-eighties the Agence intergouvernementale de la francophonie (AIF) understood these principles and launched the Collecte, gestion et diffusion du droit (Collection, management and publishing of law) (COGEDI) Program. This program attempted to centralise the collection and management of fundamental legal documents in French-speaking countries. Unfortunately, the COGEDI program did not live up to expectations and the overall visibility of legal documentation from the French-speaking world remained fairly limited, especially with regard to developing French-speaking countries. Over the past few years, with the widespread growth of the Internet and ensuing technological advancements, a gap between the state of access to law expressed in English and law expressed in French has appeared. As a result of this context, the AIF recently began reconsidering its strategy regarding access to law in the French-speaking world.

The new strategy, elaborated in collaboration with LexUM, an expert legal data processing team at the University of Montréal Faculty of Law, follows four main foundational orientations:

• free access to law

• use of technologies based on open source software

• recourse to decentralised activities

• decentralisation of know-how.

To improve the state of access to French-speaking law, while respecting these principles, two approaches have been put into place. The first one, known as the global approach, aims at providing to French-speaking countries common tools for on line access to legal information. The second approach, known as the local approach, is used in countries where great interest in electronic legal publishing exists. In the latter case, strong support for the development of national resources and skills is provided.

Far from being disparate, these two approaches are meant to be carried out as analogously as possible.

The Global Approach

The first goal of the global approach is to provide a one stop unique access point to all French language legal resources available on the Internet. Also, insofar as legal information is already available on line, the tools provided must allow for the easy identification and value of the legal information available in French to be made obvious. Should this not be the case, the tools provided must make it possible to disseminate legal information in French. The French language Droit francophone website1 is being developed for these very purposes. Moreover, in order to ensure that content updates are comprehensive and evenly distributed among the various project editors, an on line management interface has been conceived. Any person interested in the project is thereby able to contribute to its growth.

The first phase of implementation of the website Droit francophone, completed in June 2003, consisted of a catalogue where legal websites from the French-speaking world were commented upon and evaluated. The second phase of the project, completed in October 2003, aimed at publishing legislation, case law and legal commentaries of French-speaking countries. The third phase, currently under way, will add a powerful search engine to the site, making it possible to index the entire legal web of French-speaking countries. All project phases are based on open source technologies and softwares, such as Embperl, Perl, PosgreSQL, Nutch and Lucene. Moreover, three software units have been developed specifically for this project and are being distributed by LexUM under a General Public licence.[2]


The initial objective of the first phase was to put on line, in a very short time, a resource allowing efficient access to legal documentation of the member countries of the Oganisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF). The first stage of implemenation consisted of establishing the parameters to be respected by the various editors cataloguing the French-speaking countries’ legal web. Thereafter, the initial contents of the catalogue were produced, meaning that relevant websites were identified, evaluated and indexed. Finally, a tool allowing for the posting and editing of the catalogue’s contents from remote locations was put into place.

The structures and limits governing the development of the catalogue were then outlined in the editorial policy.3 The editorial policy ensures a degree of resource management consistency among the various participating

editors. It specifies that resources are selected according to their suitability to the legal context of the French-speaking world, their reliability, their use of the French language or their relationship to a member state of the OIF, as well as their sustainability. It also specifies the mandatory information to be incorporated in referencing the websites.

In order to produce the catalogue, the legal websites of the fifty one member countries of the OIF had to be searched, identified, evaluated and indexed. These tasks required an important investment of time and labour, since the catalogue aimed at a comprehensive and complete list of hyperlinks. By making such a resource available on the Internet, this unique, one stop, constantly updated access point to all legal resources of the French-speaking world is extremely practical for law professionals, researchers, students or any others interested in the law of French-speaking countries. Moreover, the website promotes the existing legal resources of developing French-speaking countries, which are often difficult to access, as they are not effectively indexed.

The software unit ensuring the posting and management of the contents of the catalogue is called FrancoPorta. To ensure the constant, continuous and effective updating of the referred websites, it is crucial that local operators working on free access to law have a hands-on involvement in the management of the portal. Therefore distributed management has been made possible via an on line web management interface.


Once on line publication of the catalogue occurred, it became obvious

that the legal material owned by the AIF had to be analysed and promoted by being published on the Driot francophone website. The AIF did hold a collection of legislative and jurisprudential texts put together within the framework of the COGEDI program (approximately 1,400 legislative texts and 1,600 court decisions) and its Encyclopédie universelle des droits de l’Homme 4 management mandate. FrancoEdo, the publication tool developed to disseminate this documentation made it possible to increase the volume and the quality of the French language legal texts accessible online.

To improve accessibility to these legal collections, several steps were necessary. The documents were initially sorted, then evaluated to determine their documentary value and their degree of reliability, and finally, in certain cases, corrected. Common errors that occurred underwent an automated treatment, while less frequent errors were corrected through manual checks of the results.

Thereafter, the documents considered to be sufficiently reliable and with a certain documentary value were converted to HTML format for

publication purposes. Each produced legal collection is now accompanied by chronological index pages, a mechanism making it possible to carry out searches using reference numbers and a full text search engine.

FrancoEdo now makes the publication of any legal material (legislation, jurisprudence or legal commentaries) on the Internet fast and easy. Polyglotte, another free software unit developed by LexUM, was integrated in the document treatment process to guarantee the automated conversion of any file readable by Mocrosoft Word to HTML and PDF. Collection, navigation and documents pages are automatically created when documents

are added. Finally, search indexation is also automated.

FrancoEdo, like FrancoPorta, has a built-in management interface accessible on line, allowing for an evenly distributed management of documentary collections.


Droit francophone already has a search engine making it possible to search within the catalogue of legal websites and documentary collections put into place during phases I and II. When working with a website, the search engine simply indexes the site’s home page. In order to offer to the users direct hyperlinks towards entire legal documents contained in the referred sites, a web spider is essential.

The software package developed is called Franco Tela and will allow the building of a kind of Google for the French-speaking legal world. It includes

a web spider and a search engine that will be developed by the computer engineering team at LexUM. The mission of the FrancoTela robot is to download web pages and to save them on a storage area network (SAN). The resulting SAN will be optimised by means of a powerful, parallel and incremental loading process in order to ensure the continuous update of the research indexes. This robot will be limited by four restrictions.

• Pages downloaded must come from a site referred to on the portal.

• Downloaded pages must come from a section of a site selected by a portal editor.

• Excluding parameters specific to each site are respected.

• Results from sites with more favourable evaluation are updated more frequently.

Thus, only the pages of sites referred on the portal will be found by FrancoTela, with only legal sections considered to be relevant by editors to be indexed. This selective downloading method will decrease processing time and band width use, while also improving search results.

To carry out these tasks, the free spider Nutch5 and the free search engine Lucene6 will be adapted accordingly.

This project is being carried out in 2003 and throughout 2004. The contents of all the referred websites will then be made accessible from the Droit francophone portal. At that stage, it will be possible to search using the websites catalogue, the documentary collections and throughout the legal web of the French-speaking world.


The Droit francophone website has been implemented using several technologies, such as Apache, PostgreSQL, Perl, EmbPerl, Sino and eventually, Nutch and Lucene. With regards to the platform on which the project was developed and subsequently hosted, a completely free and open source solution was essential, making Linux the ideal choice.

Apache is a web server now considered as being “standard” in the field of website hosting. It is reliable, fast and easy to configure. PostgreSQL

is a database management software. Although not the fastest software, PostgreSQL is highly reliable and offers a considerable number of features.

Perl is a very quickly interpreted programming language making the rapid development of web applications possible. Perl matches Apache and ModPerl technologies perfectly, which in turn increases the performance of the site. EmbPerl, which offers a full range of complete features, is the fastest Perl module, and allows for writing a Perl code within an HTML document. EmbPerl allows for the dynamic display of the Droit francophone database contents, simultaneously providing the editors of the site a management interface.

Sino, the search engine developed at the Australasian Legal Information Institute, is used to index websites and documents of phases I and II. Sino will eventually be replaced by Nutch and Lucene.

Nutch is a web spider project aimed at enabling anyone to easily and cost effectively deploy a world class web search engine. Nutch follows links in HTML documents and downloads the targets. It does so while respecting exlusion parameters (Robots.txt and metadata exclusions) and in an incremental way, meaning that additions can be made to the indexes without having to restart the indexing process. Nutch can easily be integrated to Lucene.

Lucene is a precise and fast search engine developed in Java. The Lucene engine offers popular requests syntaxes and research by fields and allows for incremental indexation. The size of Lucene indexes is equal to a third of the size of all indexed documents together. This facet is particularly important since 300 gigabytes of documents have to be indexed by FrancoTela. Tests carried out on the indexer show that the performance decreases in

a linear manner when the size of the collection to be treated increases. Test results have been excellent—most open source search engines do not allow for indexation of so many documents. It means that processing a 300 gigabyte collection is possible. However, the endeavour will still require an

investment in time and labour. Furthermore, Lucene can be personalised. Several features can be added, such as instantaneous translation of the request which allows for a simultaneous search in several languages, the production of text abstracts for each result returned, and the possibility of searching documents on a particular site.[7]

The Local Approach

The local approach is directed towards assisting and supporting French- speaking countries where the local development of access to law is perceived positively, one country at a time. The final objective of this approach is to equip legal communities in participating countries with the skills and the means necessary to carry on electronic publication of law on their own. The initiatives put forth using this approach are thus directly geared to the various actors and stakeholders in legal publication. These actors and stakeholders includes ministries of justice, courts, faculties of law and private legal publishers.

To meet expectations, two initiatives are being followed. The first project consists of a training program for people involved either in the daily management of legal documents or in the management of the processing procedures of these documents. The second more pragmatic approach is aimed at assisting these individuals and institutions with designing legal information institutes.


The Free Access to Law training program consists of one week regional seminars dedicated to understanding and implementing the free access to law. These seminars gather together legal experts and computer engineers interested in improving the visibility of their national law. In addition to explaining the importance of free access to law to these interested parties, the training program enables the acquisition of necessary skills to develop local initiatives of electronic legal publication. To reach this goal, activities are designed and scheduled to facilitate exchanges between the participants from various backgrounds. Having legal experts and computer engineers attend side by side shares the same vision of enabling exchange and interactivity.

The activities scheduled include one plenary session and two workshops. The plenary session is addressed specifically to legal experts, whereas the workshops are geared toward computer engineers:

• Plenary Session—

– access to legal information: challenges

– technological environment

– droit francophone legal portal

– free access to law.

• Legal Workshop—

– introduction to the existing contemporary documentary context

– identifying needs in the context of legal publishing

– financing the free access to law

– legal documentary standards

– collecting documents

– publishing documents

– privacy issues, i.e. the protection of personal data

– intellectual property and legal documentation

– political implications related to the free access to law.

• Technical Workshop—

– technological environment for disseminating law

– legal documents and their management

– designing documents

– collecting documents

– the architecture of free access to law systems.

Documentation is being put together to make the content of the training sessions more standard. The document produced will also make it easy to reproduce this operation in various contexts. Moreover, documentation will allow participants who have acquired the necessary knowledge during their training sessions to then offer their own training sessions, thereby contributing to the development of free access to law in their regions.

Ideally, training should precede the implementation of a legal information institute in the chosen country. Local free access to law skills can therefore be ensured so as to strengthen the influence of any resulting regional initiatives.

The first Free Access to Law training session took place in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in February 2004.8 The training session brought together participants from twelve African countries: Burkina, Benin, Burundi, Cameroun, Ivory Coast, Djibouti, Guinea, Madagascar, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal and Tchad. Preliminary results and feedback received to date about the seminars are positive and include the addition of new documentary collections to the Droit francophone website, the participants’ (including some commercial publishers) acceptance of distinction between public documents and value-added documents, and the development of new partnerships between those who attended. A similar repeat event in 2005, possibly to be hosted in Madagascar, is being discussed.


Legal information institutes are structures dedicated to offering free on line access to legal materials. Based on the public character of legal information, these structures promote free access to the primary sources of law. To attain this goal, these institutes use new information technologies to a large extent and privilege the use of open source standards and software.

Although there are several English language legal information institutes

(AustLII, BaiLII, HKLII, LII, PacLII, SafLII and WorldLII), there are only two French language legal information institutes (Droit francophone and IIJCan). Because of the paucity of French language L.I.I.s, the new strategy of free access-to-law in the French-speaking world aims at supporting and encouraging the further development of such structures.

Concretely, technical assistance, transfer of knowledge and software resources are provided to support the creation of national or regional free access to law structures. Such structures allow for documentary collections to be put on line and be kept up to date. The support subsequently provided can be divided into four categories:

• structural implementation

• electronic legal collection development

• establishing the publishing process

• follow-up and maintenance

To initiate these projects, people involved in the creation of a legal information institute can count on LexUM’s assistance as to searching for funds, installing offices and purchasing material.

In addition, assistance is provided, if needed, to put together adequate and appropriate documentary collections. Documentation makers must therefore be firstly supported through assistance with the management of legal data. The next step involves the identification requirements of documents available for publication and their actual collection. When necessary, electronically processing documents available only in paper format should also be taken into account. Lastly, the means facilitating extraction and the organisation of metadata must be set up.

With regard to the establishment of publication process, a software solution developed for this purpose by LexUM, and based on FrancoEdo, the document publishing tool of Droit francophone, has been made available under general public licence. This software can generate a national legal publishing website with all the features of Droit francophone. To facilitate the customisation of the structure and design, various functions are included in template HTML files and available for use via uniform markers. Documents added through this system are also backed up on Droit francophone servers to allow for the permanent public availability of legal information, even when national projects fail to achieve sustainability.

Finally, it is essential that publishing procedures be developed, making

it possible to ensure the roll over and the long term viability of the various structures. For this reason, projects have to be developed in collaboration with a motivated local team to guarantee continuity.

The first project of this kind, in Burkina Faso, should be fully operational by the end of 2004. JuriBurkina will be jointly hosted by the Government’s General Secretary, the central location for its server and overall development, and the Burkina Faso Bar Association, where an editorial team will collect and manage the data. Some assistance will also

be provided by ZCP Inc., a local company involved in the development of free software. JuriBurkina will publish all available computer-based format Burkina Faso case law on the Internet. Collection from the following jurisdictions are expected to be published initially:

• Conseil constitutionnel

• Conseil d’Etat

• Cour de cassation

• Cour d’appel of Ouagadougou

• Tribunal de grande instance of Ouagadougou

• Tribunal du travail of Ouagadougou.

All things considered, the principal characteristic of the renewed access to law strategy in the French-speaking world is to support an increase of evenly distributed initiatives. As such, everyone interested in taking part in the improvement of the visibility of law being expressed in French has the possibility to participate. The Droit francophone website offers common tools to all those wanting to contribute to the website without having these participants getting involved with the development of a complex infrastructure. Furthermore, the initiatives of the local approach offer possibilities to those who wish to put forward more ambitious projects adapted to their own national or regional contexts. Overall, the main objective remains the same: supporting free public access to legal materials.

[1] Droit francophone, AIF (2003) <> .

[2] General Public Licence, FSF (1991) <> .

<> .

[3] AIF, “Politique Editoriale” (2003) < epl?type+politique> .

4 This is a website which publishes a collection of Constitutions, legislative documents and

courts’ decisions related to human rights issues. It also publishes common national law texts and information about the international situation of these countries.

[5] Nutch is a nascent effort to implement an open-source web engine <http://>.

[6] An independent project by Doug Cutting which eventually became an official project in

Jakarta in September 2001. See <> .

7 For instance, Google allows searches on a particular web site using the following syntax

<site:http://www …>.

8 Formation en diffusion libre du droit. See <