The law is almost free

A Page on the Web, published in the Solicitors Journal, March 2000

The week that saw the stock market flotation of a ridiculously overvalued ‘dot com’ also saw the launch of a minimally funded ‘dot org’ whose value to the UK lawyer is likely to be immense. BAILII, the British and Irish Legal Information Institute Pilot Service at, is the first web site to provide free access to case law and legislation from numerous British and Irish courts and legislatures, with a single search engine and uniform data formats. The site currently includes 14 databases from 5 jurisdictions (UK, England & Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland), comprising over 400 megabytes of legal materials, and will be expanded significantly over the coming months.

BAILII has been developed by the Australasian Legal Information Institute (AustLII) at, in cooperation with steering committees in Britain and in Ireland. AustLII is a free access Australasian site which is operated jointly by the Law Faculties of the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) and the University of New South Wales (UNSW). BAILII demonstrates the use of AustLII’s software with British and Irish data and AustLII’s commitment to free access to the law.

Following a ‘Free the Law’ meeting in November 1999, sponsored jointly by the Society for Computers & Law (SCL), the Information Technology and the Courts Committee (ITAC), the British and Irish Legal Education and Technology Association (BILETA), the British & Irish Association of Law Librarians (BIALL) and the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (IALS), the SCL convened a UK Steering Group comprising Lord Saville, Lord Justice Brooke, Richard Susskind, Carol Tullo (Controller, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office and Queen’s Printer), Amanda Finlay (Lord Chancellor’s Department) and Laurence West-Knights, barrister. The UK Steering Group has succeeded in obtaining funding commitments from sponsors, and in obtaining permissions for the use of UK data in a free access service. Details of the Steering Group’s work are on Laurie West-Knights’ UKILELI pages at ‘UKILELI’ is the working title of the UK Steering Group’s project.

During January and February 2000 AustLII developed the BAILII Pilot Service, at its own initiative and at its own expense but with support and encouragement from Britain and Ireland. BAILII is not an official site of either the British or Irish parties working toward free access to law, but is seen as a good model that they may choose to adopt.

BAILII already includes 14 databases from 5 jurisdictions, which may be searched singly or jointly:

  • United Kingdom House of Lords Decisions
  • United Kingdom Employment Appeal Tribunal Decisions
  • United Kingdom Social Security and Child Support Commissioners’ Decisions
  • Court of Appeal of England and Wales Decisions
  • High Court of England and Wales Decisions
  • Scottish Court of Sessions Decisions
  • Scottish High Court Decisions
  • Scottish Sheriff Court Decisions
  • Northern Ireland Court of Appeal Decisions
  • Northern Ireland High Court Decisions
  • Northern Ireland Legislation
  • Irish Supreme Court Decisions
  • Irish High Court Decisions
  • Irish Legislation

Databases which will be added during April include:

  • UK Legislation
  • UK Statutory Instruments
  • Scottish Legislation
  • Scottish Statutory Instruments
  • Irish Statutory Instruments

Little can be said about the service which is not readily apparent from a visit to the site. It is simple in presentation and effective in delivering ‘what it says on the tin’. As Professor Graham Greenleaf of AustLII commented at the November 1999 meeting:

— one of the techniques we have had for trying to avoid mistakes is not to be over-complicated and not to use the most advanced whiz-bang technology that is out there. We have stuck to plain HTML pages, no frames, no fancy graphics, no difficulties in download times and the like, no PDF, just plain old HTML, so as to maximise retrieval speeds and maximise the range of users with all sorts of different browsers and equipment quality out there that can use the system.

As a simple test of the system and a follow up to last month’s Page, I searched for the phrase ‘family proceedings rules’. Given that UK statutory instruments are not yet loaded, I expected few (if any) results. In the event only one instance was found – a reference in the 1999 House of Lords decision Piglowska v Piglowski. However, a better test of the efficacy of the system was a search for ‘family proceedings’ which found 9 documents across the UK and Irish databases. By April 2000 when recent UK legislation has been loaded results will be impressive.