Developments in legal information

By Nick Holmes on January 4, 2007
Comments Off on Developments in legal information
Filed under Articles, Blogging, Europe, Legal Information Institutes, Legislation, Public Sector Information

First published January 2007 in the Internet Newsletter for Lawyers.

Here are some of the key developments in the field of (free) legal information provision in 2006 and some predictions for 2007.

The Statute Law Database

After a 10-year wait, the Statute Law Database was finally released to the public just in time for Christmas. The Government Service enquiry system was launched in May 2006 and the pilot for the public version amongst selected trial users ran from July to October. The three-phased trial included, initially, a small number of test users drawn from stakeholders with a particular interest in the development and use of legal information, and in the final phase, over 100 test users. The DCA evaluated all responses, modified the SLD and, having brought it almost up to date, released it on 20 December.

In short the SLD provides views of all consolidated primary legislation currently in force or in force as at any date from February 1991 and all secondary legislation as enacted from 1991. For a minority of the items of revised legislation there are effects from 2002 to date that have not yet been applied: a warning notice appears on results for legislation thus affected. That apart, a number of commentators have already noted inaccuracies and it should be probably be used with caution pending fuller public “quality control”.

Access to SLD content “is available free of charge to be viewed on screen, copied, printed out for private study and research purposes or for internal circulation within an organisation”, ie the DCA has quietly shelved its former assertion that it might charge users for historical, point-in-time views of legislation. But will it go the extra mile and declare the SLD “PSI” rather than “value added”, ie free for re-use under a Click-Use licence? The position is somewhat confused, with an inside source saying this is intended, but no public confirmation as yet.

Fuller background details are in my recent article.

BAILII

Reported by Joe Ury of BAILII

BAILII is currently working on the OpenLaw project, funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) who provide the physical computing network for universities and also provide funding for e-learning and related projects.

Since BAILII is a relatively new system, there are few cases available before the mid-1990s. The OpenLaw project aims aims to identify and add to BAILII a limited number of judgments that are important in the core teaching areas of law. To determine which older cases should be added, the OpenLaw project made contact with teachers of law and gathered lists of about 2,500 important judgments and these are – so far as it is possible within the limitations of copyright – gradually being put up on BAILII.

The second aim of the Open Law project has been to improve the BAILII user interface. The original was developed from the AustLII system, and is clearly not ideal given that it is used in a different legal tradition. An alpha test interface has been made available (alpha.bailii.org), with very positive feedback, and further testing and development is being undertaken.

BAILII has also now added and updates regularly a database of all the English versions of judgments provided by the European Court of Human Rights.

Of course BAILII is a constantly growing resource as new material is added (usually much faster than most other systems, commercial and non-commercial) and, as more parallel citations are mapped and more “often cited” judgments are chased down (many coming from the OpenLaw Project), the number of hyperlinks to cited judgments grows.

Europa

Reported by Sue Pettitt, University of Bristol

The European Union’s Europa website continues to mature and improve. The look and feel is attractive and navigation is more intuitive. Three areas of significant recent change are:

.eu domain

The .eu domain was launched in May 2006 and has been applied throughout Europa. Redirects from the old style URLs that included ‘.int’ were scheduled to remain for 12 months, so there is not much time left to change links you may have. Although the rest of URLs remains much the same as before, some URLs were altered during the changeover, eg the European Commission address is now ec.europa.eu.

EUR-Lex

The building of EUR-Lex is almost complete. All the Collections, including Case-law, International Agreements and Parliamentary Questions, are now available. The Case-law Collection offers a page of recent judgments and a search by case number option for older material. However, the Simple Search option offers more options for researching case law, though “Search by parties” is still not live. Advanced Search, for the “professional information user”, has also recently become available.

The last missing piece of the EUR-Lex jigsaw is LexAlert, a personalised alerting service.

The Newsletter section is worth looking at regularly as it highlights latest additions and planned developments.

N-Lex

Finding the measures used by each member state to implement directives has always been tricky and subject to delays as this has been dependent on notification by each country. N-Lex is an experimental site that aims to provide a standard template to search each country’s national legislative database. Search options offered are full text, title, document type and publication source, but there is no sign yet of being able to search by Directive number. The technical difficulties involved in searching 25 national sites mean that the experimental status is likely to remain for some time yet.

Public sector information

In December 2006, the OFT reported on its market study into the commercial use of public sector information (PSI), finding that raw information is not as easily available as it should be, licensing arrangements are restrictive, prices are not always linked to costs and public sector information holders (PSIHs), such as Ordnance Survey, Land Registry and Companies House, may be charging higher prices to competing businesses and giving them less attractive terms than their own value-added operations. The report also found that much of the legislation and guidance which aims to ensure access to information is provided on an equal basis lacks clarity and is inadequately monitored. As a result the full benefits of public sector information are not being realised.

Public sector information holders (PSIHs) are usually the only source for much of this raw data, and although some make this available to businesses for free, others charge. A number of PSIHs also compete with businesses in turning the raw information into value-added products and services. This means PSIHs may have reason to restrict access to information provided solely by themselves.

The OFT has concluded that PSIHs should:

  • make as much PSI available as possible for commercial use/re-use;
  • ensure that businesses have access to PSI at the earliest point that it is useful to them;
  • provide access to information where the PSIH is the only supplier on an equal basis to all businesses and the PSIH itself;
  • use proportionate cost-related pricing and to account separately for their monopoly activities and their value-added activities so that PSIH’s can demonstrate that they are providing and pricing information fairly and in a non-discriminatory manner; and
  • enable the regulator (OPSI) to monitor PSIHs better, with improved enforcement and complaints procedures.

Blogs

2006 has seen a clutch of new UK law bloggers joining the early adopters. Many of these new entrants have, through frequent, quality posts, already established themselves as key commentators and opinion formers.

Human Law is from Justin Patten, championing the cause of law blogging and the use of “social media” generally.

Family Lore is from John Bolch, and Landlord Law Blog from Tessa Shepperson, who provide informed comment on developments in these areas, as does Corporate Blawg UK in the field of corporate/company law in the UK.

IMPACT is from the intellectual property and technology team at Freeth Cartwright LLP, setting out thoughts on all things to do with intellectual property and IT law.

Legal Spy is an insider’s view of the UK legal world from a PI solicitor.

Head of Legal is from a barrister specialising in European, human rights and public law.

Nearly Legal is from a mature entrant to the law and provides wide-ranging thoughtful comment on many aspects of legal practice.

The Orange Rag is from Charles Christian of the Legal Technology Insider, providing breaking news in legal IT.

Charon QC is an eclectic mix of comment on legal education, sport, politics and much besides.

For a full catalogue of UK law bloggers see Lawfinder:Blogs.

Wikis

Two specialist law wikis set up in 2006: WikiCrimeLine and Wiki Mental Health.

Predictions for 2007

My predictions for 2007 focus largely on the impact of the “social media” (popularly referred to as “Web 2.0”). See my recent article for background.

RSS will explode

With Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 7 released and other big internet companies upgrading key information management products, 2007 will see RSS reading reach a mass audience. There is already no shortage of useful RSS feeds for lawyers lawyers, and if the smallest of local councils can produce several, so can everyone else that matters. Spurred by the increased demand, they will.

Once again, lawyers will be some of the last to cotton on. As Richard Susskind said recently in his Times column:

Most lawyers are pathologically late adopters of IT. Despite promising, early successes, until the worth of an emerging technology is proven beyond reasonable doubt it will not generally be embraced by the legal world. A case in point is RSS [which] enables law firms to alert their clients when they publish something new online, and allows practitioners themselves to be similarly notified when websites relevant for them are updated. While this appears to be ideal for lawyers, many have not heard of RSS. … within 18 months, any lawyer not using RSS will be badly out of step.

Blogging (by lawyers) will not take off

We’re near the end of the runway, but despite the best efforts of the small but well-formed UK law blogging community, signs are that blogging will not cross the chasm and enter the lawyer mainstream. We’ll have many new entrants, but not enough to penetrate the consciousness of Bloggs & Co (sic) or to convince the unconvinced. Insofar as blogging is no longer technology (ie “stuff that doesn’t work yet”), reasons for lawyers not blogging have less to do with technophobia than with law firm culture.

Marketing will not get it

Marketing departments and PR agencies are aware of the marketing potential of blogs, but are not yet sufficiently engaged to know how to handle them. More ill-considered faux blogs such as Watson Farley & Williams’ Trainee Law Blog will appear and be slated by the blogosphere.

Email newsletters will die … slowly

Firms that pump out email newsletters obviously took a pro-active approach to this internet thing some time ago. But the world has moved on. Some will cotton on to the potential for blogs and RSS to distribute the same information more effectively (there is little, if any, viral marketing effect from law firm newsletters), but most will continue to pollute your inbox.

The established law publishers will start to hurt

With the increasing provision of free law, news, comment and analysis and low cost legal information services on the web, the established law publishers are losing small customers rapidly, divesting themselves of non-profitable lines, concentrating on their larger customers and acquiring complementary businesses to provide a wider service to those customers. Prices for their services continue to increase way above inflation, so the rout will continue. Yes, LexisNexis, Westlaw etc are must-have services for the more affluent practices. But oranges are not the only fruit.

Most law firm and chambers websites will remain Web 1.0

They have not heard of Web 2.0. You have!

Microsoft Vista will not fly off the shelves

With Windows users all now comfortably bedded in with XP SP2, the switch to the untried Vista may take several years and Microsoft may not continue to rule the world. Some will think twice because Microsoft’s end-user licensing agreement allows it to unilaterally decide that you have breached the terms of the agreement and use its activation technology to disable the software (and perhaps shut down your entire network) without a by your leave.

With this technology Microsoft has the power to stamp out piracy everywhere. But that might just drive illicit users towards free software such as Linux. So will Microsoft have shot itself in the foot?