Cook Islands enters a new era of legal transparency

In a landmark law project, Cook Islands laws have been consolidated and made freely available online. Deputy Solicitor-General David Greig discusses the groundbreaking project and its impact on the rule of law

Cook Islands enters a new era of legal transparency

In a historic move, the Cook Islands has embarked on a significant project to consolidate its laws and make them publicly accessible online for the first time in 30 years.

The project is a huge step towards making the legal system transparent and accessible to everyone, from citizens and local lawyers to the wider global community, and was made possible with generous funding from the High Commission of Aotearoa New Zealand. It has been conducted in collaboration with global publisher LexisNexis, which contributed its technological and editorial expertise throughout the project.

As a result, the Laws of the Cook Islands website was launched on 24 June 2024 as a free, globally accessible resource providing access to Cook Islands legislation. David Greig, Deputy Solicitor-General of the Cook Islands says the resource will be a “game changer” for practitioners in the country, and will go a long way to demystifying the legal system for its citizens.

Most Read

Consolidating 30 years of legislation

The last consolidation of Cook Islands laws was done in 1994, and published in hard copy. Since then it has remained largely untouched, and the possibility of doing another consolidation was not considered until 2018.

Deputy Solicitor-General David Greig says the project was ‘a new experience’ for the Cook Islands and Crown Law Office, and what started as a relatively small project quickly grew into a substantial undertaking.

“Once we blew the cobwebs off, we found that we had a hard copy that wasn’t fantastically well organised,” Greig tells NZ Lawyer.

“It was also expected to be in hard copy by default, but given what’s happened over the last few years, everyone has gotten online and started working remotely. Now, the emphasis is that this will be an online global resource, and we’re very excited for it to go live.”

One of the key aims of the project was to enhance the transparency of the legal system by providing easy access to Cook Islands laws. When it comes to access to information, Greig notes that the Cook Islands has experienced some unique challenges.

“There’s been an expectation that lawyers are the ones who deal with the law, and it’s a mystery for everybody else,” he explains. “When it comes to basic legislation, there’s never been an ability for anybody to go to a library and use common sense to find what they’re looking for.”

He notes that part of the reason for this was simply a lack of resources. The legislation would sit in a room, and if a lawyer needed it, they’d go and pay $2 to get a small hard copy. Then in 1992, the main courthouse and government buildings suffered a devastating fire where many of the country’s legal resources were lost and never properly recovered.

Greig notes that as a result, many practitioners simply do their work based on their own experience, and the experience of their peers – a practice which has made the legal system very opaque. As the 1994 consolidation got further and further away, it became very apparent that the Cook Islands needed to have proper, up to date legislation.

When LexisNexis entered the picture to begin supporting the project, its mission was clear – uphold and promote the rule of law.

“For LexisNexis, advancing the rule of law is our mission – and one of the components of that is very much the transparency of law,” says Hannah Lim, Strategic Partnerships Lead at LexisNexis.

“Laws have to be transparent for people to understand their rights and obligations, and to be able to participate in the governance of their communities.”

Hannah notes that these types of projects leverage on LexisNexis’ unique capabilities, and the goal is to support partners and governments in fulfilling their obligations to their citizens. When governments are willing to collaborate, LexisNexis comes in to lend its technical expertise to make these projects come to life – and the Cook Islands has been a hugely successful example of this.

“Transparency of law is something we see as a key foundation for a functioning and healthy democratic society, and we’re very pleased to have the capabilities to be able to directly support this mission,” Hannah says.

Cook Islands takes its place on the world stage

When it comes to the rule of law, the Pacific region is often a challenging environment. However, the Cook Islands has consistently set the highest standards in the region, and having a set of accessible and consolidated laws will only solidify this further.

The Cook Islands is also becoming an increasingly active player on the world stage. Prime Minister Mark Brown is currently the chairman of the Pacific Island Forum, and Greig notes that having open information available globally will send a clear signal to the rest of the world – the Cook Islands is outward-looking and open to engagement.

However, Greig highlights that maintaining these standards doesn’t end with one project.

“We’re conscious that we have to work every day to keep ourselves as strong as possible to exercise equity and fairness,” Greig explains.

“Keeping things lawful and ethical doesn’t happen by accident, and one of the components is having a clear and transparent set of laws. But it’s an enormous leg-up to have clear and current information that you can rely on as a starting point.”

The need for a culture of transparency, integrity and accountability was highlighted by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who recently made a visit to the Cook Islands. She was the keynote speaker for the first day of the 25th Congress of the Pacific Association of Supreme Audit Institutions (PASAI), and commented on the power of building a strong reputation globally.

“Helen Clark said that a strong reputation is an intangible asset, and that’s so true,” Greig says.

“This is a window to the world, it’s money in the bank, and it’s an asset that will benefit the Cook Islands across the board. It’s incremental, and there are other things that may be done in the future – but this is one small part of trying to have an informed country and community.”

Hannah Lim, Strategic Partnerships Lead at LexisNexis, says that going digital is a particularly important part of maintaining accessibility. She notes that people’s expectations of government services are increasing, and governments have an obligation to continuously meet these expectations.

“As technology advances, the public is going to question why they can access all kind of information online, but can’t do the same with the law,” she says.

“The law is a public good, nobody should own it – so the challenge for us is to equip and resource everybody whose responsibility it is to get the laws out there.”

Safeguarding the future

The Laws of the Cook Islands launched on the 24th of June, and the project has been a true labour of love from everyone involved. David Greig notes that it’s been a significant challenge in resources, both in terms of skills and pure numbers, and everyone on the team has had to be innovative in how they approach different tasks.

“Our skills sets were phenomenally stretched, but in a good way, because there’s nowhere else that I could have had this experience of doing all the things I got to do,” he explains. “The work was extremely diverse, and we’ve all had to develop our skills to be able to deal with anything and everything.”

Now, Greig is looking to embark on a similar project to curate Cook Islands case law. The Cook Islands is a common law jurisdiction, but nothing akin to law reports exists yet. The use of precedents is largely based on the knowledge of individual lawyers, so a project focused on case law would be a substantial boost to the country’s legal community.

Reflecting on the Cook Islands’ progress as a nation over the last sixty years, Greig says the country has made some extraordinary strides forward. This means that the Crown Law Office is incredibly busy, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future – however, that can only be taken as a positive sign.

“We’ve gone from being a colonial offshoot of an offshoot up until the 1960s, and things have evolved since then,” Greig says. “Now, we have to do what every other country does, and sort out everything from civil aviation to international shipping. To cover our bases as best as we can, we have to be well resourced.”

“I’m so pleased that we’ve had the relationship with LexisNexis and its team,” Greig concludes.

“I would like to continue the momentum that we’ve gained with this consolidation, and move onto other projects that can be put online and make the system more transparent for everybody.”

Consolidated Laws of the Cook Islands, published by Parliamentary Services, can now be accessed via this link.

Recent articles & video

Two make partner at Malley & Co

Tribunal dismisses charges against ex-lawyer who disparaged Australian judge

US federal judge upholds law suspending 97-year-old appeals judge

US law firms retract from expanding markets, close multiple offices

UK Law Commission proposes reforms to contempt of court laws

Classic Cases Revisited: R v Brown – What Legally Constitutes Consent?

Most Read Articles

Three join the District Court bench

Lane Neave moves Wellington premises to Customhouse Quay

Kate Sheppard Chambers takes on three

Succeed Legal successfully courts long-time DLA Piper partner as consultant