Five Years of Free Law – the BAILII celebration

First published December 2004 in Computers and Law

Lord Justice Brooke chaired the legendary “Free the Law” meeting at Chatham House in London which gave birth to the body we now know as BAILII. 1 November 2004 saw him again in the chair, this time to host a celebration of its first five years. He was joined on the rostrum by Graham Greenleaf of AustLII, BAILII’s adoptive parent, and representatives from across the British Isles. Unencumbered by any notes of the proceedings, what follows is a liberal interpretation of some of the evening’s highlights.

Following the first session, which comprised a demonstration of BAILII, Dominic Hartley, a senior civil servant at the DCA, kicked off part two with a review of the online services that the DCA/Court Service have developed over the period of which they can justly be proud.

Ronan Keane, former Chief justice of the Supreme Court of Ireland, then took us on an entertaining romp through recent Irish judicial history.

The general mood of the meeting was, of course, one of celebration. However, we were forced to commiserate with Carolyn Kirby, Chairman of the Law Society-Wales Committee, her compatriots and all who do business with them. Not only must they attempt to construct current Welsh legislation by identifying and integrating subsequent amending instruments, they must also first ascertain if in fact power to make the specific provision they seek has been delegated to the Welsh Assembly by reviewing a long line of transfer of functions orders (and amendment orders). Further, much secondary legislation is made by way of circulars and it appears that some of these never see print, let alone digital form, residing as hand-written scraps of paper in Ministers’ top drawers (or was I dreaming at this point?)

Graham Greenleaf spoke passionately of how the enthusiasm of the founders and the good will of information providers had made BAILII possible and successful and had “raised the bar” in terms of the level of public provision of law. Importantly, BAILII had proved that the AustLII model (both technical and organisational) was transportable to other jurisdictions and had thus been instrumental in spawning the other LII cousins CanLII, PacLII, HKLII, SAFLII and WorldLII. He also unwittingly amply demonstrated the frustrations of an inexperienced user when his Boolean connector “near” inexplicably produced no results. However, by substituting /50/ (within 50 words of) he was able to continue with the cake he baked earlier, demonstrating a cross-jurisdictional search on WorldLII and previewing the international materials now loaded on that service.

In the panel discussion which followed Henry Scrope of Emplaw posed the question that we’ve been asking repeatedly over the last 7 years, “Will the Statute Law Database really be online next Spring?” and the supplementary question, “And is it indeed intended to charge users for reference to ‘point in time’ versions?” To both, the answer from Dominic Hartley of the DCA was unfortunately “I’ll have to check back with base.” “It’s a scandal!” interjected Laurie West-Knights.

The meeting already having encroached considerably on our drinks and canapé time, Richard Susskind took us at a brisk canter through current developments regarding re-use of Public Sector Information (PSI). He chairs the Advisory Panel on PSI whose job is to advise the Government so that this asset is indeed protected and exploited and its value is maximised. Central to its deliberations is the 2003 European Directive on the re-use of PSI which will be implemented in the UK on 1 July 2005. This creates a new, harmonised regime, aiming to remove obstacles that stand in the way. The Panel “strongly supports the aspirations underlying the PSI Directive, and believes that it provides a basis for developing more ambitious ways of exploiting the intellectual capital of the public sector.” He left us feeling confident that provision of PSI would move from being reactive to the requests of citizens to being proactive to their needs.


Transcript of the proceedings
HMSO PSI pages
Advisory Panel on PSI
Europa pages on PSI