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Pro bono initiatives: old textbooks for the underdeveloped world: serious theoretical issues

Pro bono initiatives

Old books for the third world

The organised distribution of secondhand law books to sub-Saharan Africa, the poorer parts of Asia and the Caribbean has been hailed as a contribution to the underpinning of individual liberty and democratic government. The organisers do not seem to have realised the contradictions inherent in this scheme.

First, an old law book is more like out-of-date food than like an old overcoat. Old overcoats can keep you warm, but old law books, like food which is past its sell-by date, are worse than useless – they are dangerous. If it were to be suggested to a successful British lawyer that he or she might rely on old editions of legal textbooks donated by inhabitants of former colonies, this would rightly be regarded as an insult. Developing countries deserve more than our castoffs, just as poor people deserve more than our old clothes.

No decent British lawyer would use an out of date textbook. If she did, she would risk liability for negligence. Old law books are simply wrong, and valueless, because they contain out of date material. If you are involved in litigation and your opponent has a new book, while you have an old one, you are suffering a tremendous disadvantage.

Second, the distribution of such useless material to the deserving poor is one of the clearest examples of the pro bono movement not thinking its actions through. If law books are essential for democracy in “the poorer parts of Asia”, then why should those who thirst for democracy not have access to up to date material? Are we seriously expected to believe that a poverty-stricken Asian lawyer will give heartfelt thanks when he receives an old edition of Archbold? The attitude seems to be that old law books are no use to us, but the colonies will be grateful for them.

Third, it has been reported that the major law publishers are involved in this patronising exercise. But it seems clear that their largesse stops short of giving new law books away, even though they are essential for democracy. Law publishing is known to be a highly profitable business, and the cost of new editions of law books makes them unavailable to anyone other than the very rich or those with access to a law library. The distribution of  new editions of law books to the deserving colonies would carry more weight if useful texts, rather than useless castoffs, were given away. Lawyers in developing countries will have a long wait if they expect deliveries of new law books from multinational publishers.

One of the organisers of the distribution of unwanted old law books is reported to have said that all of those who work on the project feel that what they are doing is in tune with the times.


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