Free legal web services

A Page on the Web, published in the Solicitors Journal, May 2001

Last month we looked at the extent to which you might meet prospective clients’ expectations for free online legal advice and information. Let’s turn the tables and see what legal information you can reasonably expect to be provided free on the web.

A public service?

The government has an obligation to make the law of the land accessible to the citizen and, while there may be some argument as to how far this obligation extends towards providing all-singing, all-dancing versions of all the law on the web, at least a start has been made by HMSO, the Court Service, the Lord Chancellors Department. There are many shortcomings in the extent, format and utility of these resources for the lawyer and in the short term these deficiencies are being addressed by other non-commercial and commercial web publishers.

The government is also committed to an ambitious program for modernising government and making all Government services available online by 2005 which will improve the scope and utility of services pertinent to lawyering. See the Modernising Government site at and the Office of the e-Envoy site at

There are many public service, charitable, academic and individual websites providing information services of use to the lawyer. The difficulty is in finding and collating specific information from these disparate resources in the first place.

On the primary law front, the principal non-commercial legal information provider is of course BAILII, the British and Irish Legal Information Institute (, who are some way towards compiling a full text database of all publicly available primary law and further primary materials provided by arrangement with other publishers. BAILII thus improves on the public primary law information services by not only (in due course) providing a service wider in scope, but more importantly, bringing all these materials together in one place in a uniform searchable format.

Before looking at the commercial sector, let’s consider information services provided by associations to which you belong. The ‘free’ services they provide will ultimately be paid for out of your subscription fee; anything beyond what this covers will be run as a commercial service – as already is the case for example with Law Society Publishing.

A free lunch?

Assuming, as we must, that commercial organisations are driven by the great god Profit, why should they provide information services for free? Because they calculate that (one way or another) these services will improve their bottom line, if not in the short-term, at least in the medium to longer term.

Many new legal information services set up in the last 18 months – at least up and till early this year – assumed they could generate sufficient advertising revenues to support their free services. This has proved not to be the case. Nor have affiliate schemes (eg referral services paid for by the referee) generated much revenue.

So the old maxim applies: there is no such thing as a free lunch. But with the competition for your ‘eyeball’ so increased by the internet you can reasonably expect a free ‘starter’. For example:

  • free tasters – demos, samples and trial periods are provided by most publishers
  • free online update etc services complementing or supporting existing (hardcopy or electronic) subscription services
  • substantial useful free content, falling short of giving away the silverware, designed to push you towards chargeable services.

… or a considered marketing device?

Butterworths’ free online service is LawDirect ( This effectively comprises a free front end to their range of subscription services. Butterworths online publishing is based around a highly structured database of legal materials, including cases, statutes, SIs, EU materials, quasi-legal materials and articles, and the LawDirect gives access to these up to summary level. A search on LawDirect produces alphabetical listings within category of the titles of matching documents and thence summary information is available. LawDirect also includes a customisable daily update service of materials added to the database, a Bill Tracker, the Is it in Force? database and a library of free forms (from the EveryForm site, but to be integrated into LawDirect in future). It is of substantial use in its own right but in the main all onward links are to Butterworths chargeable services.

By contrast Sweet & Maxwell’s free online services ( are somewhat ad hoc. It provides numerous online newsletters, a weekly Case Check service, a Crown Court Alerting Service (court listings) and various free online updates to subscription-based works published in hard copy and on CD or online.

Free resources of note from other major legal publishers are Smith Bernal’s Casebase database ( of CA and HC judgments from 1996 to 1999 (now also included in the BAILII service – see above), and the Incorporated Council of law Reporting’s Daily Law Notes (WLR case summaries) (

You get what you pay for

So there is plenty of free legal information out there for you to enjoy, but it is time-consuming to find and use and will rarely fully satisfy your needs. If your budget is limited you need not be pushed into the arms of the larger commercial publishers, but the new breed of aspirant web publishers seeking to attract you with free services are coming down to earth and realising that they too must look to you to pay.