FreeLegalWeb dreaming on

By Nick Holmes on January 31, 2010
One comment
Filed under Access to law, Articles

First published in Computers and Law, February 2010.

What follows is an account of the development of FreeLegalWeb – a collaborative project designed to join up and make sense of publicly accessible law and authored commentary, and to encourage ongoing contribution and participation, for the benefit of lawyers, advisers and the public at large. Many have contributed to the project and all have a slightly different view of what we hope to achieve, but I hope my own perspective will be illuminating and encourage others to contribute.

The manifesto

On 12 August 2008 I set up a blog and wrote —

We already have a substantial free legal web, but it is not joined up. We have the resources and the technologies to join it up – now – for the benefit of lawyers and the community at large. Those of us who have an interest in access to the law and justice and the efficient provision of legal services have a duty to make this happen.

There has in the past 18 months been a sea change in Government’s attitude to the provision of Public Sector Information (PSI) and the encouragement of user-generated services supporting government. In particular, the independent Power of Information Review recommended changes that have been substantially accepted by Government, who, through the Power of Information Task Force are now committed to making this happen.

The time has come to build the Free Legal Web.

The dream

Writing in Times Online in April 2006 the eminent Professor Richard Susskind, legal tech guru and adviser to the great and good, spelt out his vision for a “Wikipedia of English law”:

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.

He was perhaps not the first to have this vision, but he was certainly the first to articulate it publicly and it remains a good statement of the type of ultimate service (give or take) of which many of us have also dreamt. There are differences of emphasis but Susskind’s dream and our dreams are in essence the same dream.

How do we achieve that dream?

What we have

Consider the free resources we already have:

  • We have more or less open access primary law resources and other official documents, forms and guidance from government and a commitment to making these resources more accessible and encouraging user generated services.
  • We have another substantial free access primary law database – BAILII.
  • We have a number of specialists already maintaining (or planning) specialist law wikis and enthusiasts contributing law articles to Wikipedia.
  • We have a growing number of law bloggers, many of whom provide succinct, expert ongoing commentary and analysis.
  • We have many other individuals, firms and publishers who publish case summaries, articles, updaters and guidance for free access on their websites.
  • We have public, charitable and private services providing free guidance and fora for the public faced with legal processes.
  • And finally, we have Web 2.0 technologies that enable (potentially) all these sources to be aggregated, “mashed up” and repurposed.

We have the resources and technologies now to build the Free Legal Web – to achieve a result that will, in time, evolve into “a corpus of [UK] law like no other”. The dream is ambitious, but it is not pie in the sky.

What we need

What is needed is an imperative (a compelling reason to participate) and a bit of organisation.

Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: the power of organizing without organizations is an eminently readable analysis of the social revolution now taking place as groups of people come together to share with one another and work together.

Instead of my “imperative”, Shirky suggests what is needed is a “plausible promise”, creating the basic desire to participate, and an “acceptable bargain” with users as to what they will get out of it. Here’s a plausible promise that resulted in a well-known success:

“I’m doing a (free) operating system I’d like to know what features most people would want. Any suggestions are welcome, but I won’t promise I’ll implement them “ – Linus Torvald (Linux)

So what’s the plan?

Here’s my plausible promise:

I will spearhead the development of the Free Legal Web – a service that joins up the law and legal commentary and analysis on the web and delivers a useful service to both lawyers and the community at large. I need a commitment from a handful of others with complementary skills and expertise to kick-start the project. All suggestions are welcome and necessary to drive this forward.

To this end I have set up this blog to discuss the issues and progress the project. Follow it for all latest developments. See the About page for more details about contributing to the project.

Go forth and contribute!

The BarCamp

Many did come forth and, in London on 18 October 2008, 24 enthusiastic souls gave up their Saturday to share their ideas on how we might achieve our seemingly impossible task.

My intro attempted to define the project: in essence, better, joined-up, value-added access to the law via a) direct access to the law itself and b) expertly authored commentary; and to identify the main obstacles, which for me boiled down to two: addressability of law sources and incentivising and “certifying” sufficiently expert contributions.

John Sheridan of OPSI then described what the government could do to support a project such as ours and the prospective merging of the OPSI legislation service and the SLD which would rationalise access. Joe Ury pointed to tools that could be applied to gain better access to BAILII resources and also clarified the murky issue of copyright in High Court judgments which stands in the way of fully open access to them.

Several barristers, solicitors and students contributed experiences and ideas, particularly as to incentivising others to contribute authoritative content.

Members of the TSO team contracted to OPSI gave us information on the OPSI API (application programming interface) being developed and several others of a technical bent described how lightweight technologies might be applied – in particular, several associated with the mySociety information democracy project who have already done great work with projects related to the cause such as TheyWorkForYou and WhatDoTheyKnow.In the afternoon four discussion groups considered different aspects of the project in more detail:

  • John Sheridan led a group that considered the target audience, using as a starting point OPSI research on use of the OPSI legislation site. OPSI has profiled four typical classes of user: lawyers, public sector manager, informed layman and the “anti-user” whose attempt to address their problem via the site is entirely inappropriate.
  • Jeni Tennison of TSO worked with a group to refine OPSI’s proposed permanent URI scheme for legislation which will allow direct addressing of legislation down to the smallest fragment and which will also enable point-in-time queries.
  • Francis Davey led a group which came up with an ingenious proposed “eco-system” employing several modules: a Google Knol-type environment for authoring contributions (which would be owned by the author and could be syndicated back onto their own site), an authentication module; a Yahoo answers-type module; a legislation/case annotation module; and an API which would resolve references and provide a rich interface to the wider web. All these modules could be based on existing open source tools and shared legal information resources.
  • Harry Metcalfe’s group extended this discussion, considering several use case scenarios and how the service might meet their needs: practitioner, law librarian and informed user (all within scope) and ill-informed user (without). For example, the mother of a disabled child who had done some initial research and had sufficient direction to pursue her problem would find value; the ill-informed “pub” question would likely draw a blank. The group also discussed how potential authors might self-certify by subscribing to the rules of the “brand”.

At the closing session we agreed on key next steps. Apart from organisational issues, foremost amongst these was to address the question of funding. We agreed those interested in getting their hands dirty would meet again mid-January.

The organisation

A small group met in January 2009 to progress the project. We agreed to set up a non-profit company and to produce a project plan and a proposal for funding the development of a pilot service with authored content focused on housing law

The choice of housing law was a no brainer as housing is high on public policy agendas and the three lawyers in our steering group all had experience in housing law: barrister Francis Davey and solicitors William Flack and the pseudonymous Nearly Legal.

With me, Robert Casalis de Pury (of UniRom Systems) and Harry Metcalfe (of The Dextrous Web) formed a Community Interest Company, FreeLegalWeb CIC, and we three are now jointly managing the project.

The persuasion

Shortly after launching the initiative, I had submitted the idea to the Power of Information Task Force’s ShowUsABetterWay competition which sought the best ideas for leveraging public information – and we were one of the 14 winners! We were one of only three that were not geo-based and the only one that directly addressed the needs of a professional community (as well as the needs of the public sector and the lay community).

Our “prize” was in kind support from the Cabinet Office to assist in moving the project to the next stage through the provision of the services of information consultant Rudi Moffitt of Plus or Minus Seven. Rudi helped us develop a strategic plan and put together our funding proposal and, come March 2009, we were ready to tout for business.We discussed our proposal with the (now ex) Power of Information Task Force and with a number of potential stakeholders and sponsors: with government via OPSI, the Cabinet Office’s Digital Engagement Team and the Ministry of Justice: with associations including the Law Society, the Bar Council and LawWorks; with related causes BAILII, the Open Knowledge Foundation and mySociety; and with several law schools and law libraries.

Reaction to our plans was uniformly positive. There was a good prospect that we would secure some public funds for development, but it was clear that private funds might be obtained only when we actually had a working service to demonstrate.

In June we received our first funding commitment – from OPSI – sufficient to commit resources to the first phase of development of the pilot project. In the UK OPSI is the key facilitator of public sector information policy, setting standards and providing a practical framework of best practice for opening up and encouraging the use of PSI. It also has direct responsibility for the publication (inter alia) of legislation and is advanced in its development of a new legislation website which provides an API enabling direct addressing of legislation data and resources. Via the Citator FreeLegalWeb will both exploit the facilities the new legislation website will offer and also help contribute to OPSI’s PSI policy agenda.

A big thanks to John Sheridan at OPSI who has been a leading supporter of the project from the outset. Indeed it was he who first encouraged me to go public with the initiative in the autumn of 2008.

The development

We split the development project into three tracks, with me responsible for data and content development, Robert Casalis responsible for the back-end Citator database and API development and Harry Metcalfe responsible for the front end user and author website development.

Although, through our existing businesses, we each had much existing know how to draw on and a personal desire to put in the effort to get the service off the ground, we had our day job responsibilities to consider and this was not something we could knock up out of hours.

It was a little while before sufficient concerted time and resources could be allocated to the technical development which was completed between November 2009 and January 2010. Soon we’ll be ready to sign off initial development and launch our Beta service.

Given our modest budget, the FreeLegalWeb Beta service will be limited in its initial functionality but strong on aspiration. The site provides core end-user functionality for browsing and searching the resources, a selected range of primary and secondary law resource records in the Citator and authored content focused on Housing Law only. As the Beta phase progresses and we load more data and receive feedback, we’ll be extending functionality and coverage. In particular, during the next development phase we plan to develop the authoring interface and author profiling, extend the authored articles coverage to other areas of law and extend the Citator resources coverage.

The future

We have a long way to go to secure sufficient funds to develop the full range of features envisaged, to grow the content and to maintain the service, but we are nevertheless proceeding with the second phase of beta development within our modest current budget and in the expectation that some of our other current funding prospects will come good.

The Beta service provides us with a platform to demonstrate our plans to potential sponsors and to engage with early users and potential contributors. If you have data, content, ideas or funds to contribute, please do get in touch.

FreeLegalWeb will not yet change the world, but the dream is alive.

One comment

Great work Nick, et al. Thanks for sharing with us all your experiences to date. Looking forward to the beta release!

by Richard on 27 May 2010 at 10:33 pm. #