The law wiki dream (2)

By Nick Holmes on January 9, 2008
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Filed under Articles, Wikis

First published September 2007 in the Legal Web e-book on Legal Information and Web 2.0.

Most of us know of wikis primarily through the granddaddy of all wikis, Wikipedia, which provides an immense, user-generated encyclopedia of articles on every conceivable topic. Could we achieve something similar – more limited in scope, but more in-depth and more reliable – in the UK legal domain? A grand law wiki? Richard Susskind, writing in The Times in April 2006, certainly thought such an ambitious initiative beckoned:

This online resource could be established and maintained collectively by the legal profession; by practitioners, judges, academics and voluntary workers. If leaders in the English legal world are serious about promoting the jurisdiction as world class, here is a genuine opportunity to pioneer, to excel, to provide a wonderful social service, and to leave a substantial legacy. The initiative would evolve a corpus of English law like no other: a resource readily available to lawyers and lay people; a free web of inter-linked materials; packed with scholarly analysis and commentary, supplemented by useful guidance and procedure; rendered intensely practical by the addition of action points and standard documents; and underpinned by direct access to legislation and case law, made available by the Government, perhaps through BAILII. … A Wikipedia of English law could be an evolving, interactive, multimedia legal resource of unprecedented scale and utility.

In an immediate and direct response to this challenge, barrister Andrew Keogh set up WikiCrimeLine, as part of his CrimeLine family of free updating materials. It aims to bring together all relevant criminal law materials on to one easy-to-search website. It seeks to digest all the latest cases, Acts of Parliament, SIs, explanatory notes, Crown Prosecution Service charging standards and guidance and hundreds of other important documents.

Andrew did not have a commercial end game in mind but shared Susskind’s vision of a comprehensive free-access wiki in the field of criminal law, created by its users. Sixteen months on Andrew candidly admits the project has been an “almost total failure”. Only a handful of people contribute. What is there is pretty impressive but largely the work of one contributor. There are simply not enough people who share his vision and are prepared to commit time and effort to the cause.

At about the same time, solicitor Jonathan Wilson had a similar aspiration – to create a wiki for mental health law practitioners. He started Wiki Mental Health because he was losing track of the many printed court judgments and other documents and wanted a way of organising cases, legislation and other information in an easily-accessible way. There are three sections to the website: commentaries on case law; the up-to-date text of, and commentary on, the Mental Health Act 1983 and related legislation; and general articles explaining the concepts and terminology used in the case law and legislation sections and giving practical guidance for lawyers.

Traffic on the site is reasonably buoyant but not many have contributed. Again it appears that insufficient numbers share his vision and are willing to commit the time.

So should we – on the experience of these early attempts – write off the law wiki dream? I think not.

Consider the resources we already have:

  • we have “open access” primary resources such as the Statute Law Database, and other public sector information
  • we have other freely accessible primary law databases such as BAILII
  • we have those such as Andrew Keogh and Jonathan Wilson already committed to maintaining specialist law wikis
  • we have many other enthusiasts already contributing law articles to Wikipedia
  • we have a growing number of law bloggers, some of whom provide succinct, expert commentary
  • we have many others who publish articles, updaters and guidance for free (and sometimes open) access on their websites
  • and finally we have Web 2.0 technologies that enable (potentially) all these sources to be syndicated, aggregated, interrogated, “mashed up” and repurposed.

We have the resources and technologies now to achieve something that could in time evolve into “a corpus of English law like no other”. The dream is ambitious, but it is not pie in the sky.

What is needed is an imperative and a bit of organisation. A grand law wiki of the type envisaged by Susskind would be an ambitious project requiring a huge amount of time from a driving organisation and a team of editors, promoting the concept, establishing the guidelines, moderating the contributions and generally keeping it in shape and pointed in the right direction. It is not often recognised that the success of Wikipedia is as much down to the organisational efforts of the founding fathers and the thousands of specialist editors as it is to the contributions of the millions of individual article authors.

Traditionally such organisation has been the preserve of the commercial law publishers. They recognise that, in order to achieve a successful and profitable outcome for a large publishing project, they need a publishing management team to make the business case and manage the project, an editorial board to commission and manage contributions and an editorial team to put it all into shape. The grand law wiki may be a not-for-profit enterprise, but it needs similar organisation. So it is that I see the “Room 6 Initiative” for an IP law wiki, described by Jeremy Phillips on his IPKat blog, as having a very good chance of success – though not a single page for that wiki yet exists.