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If you think that law isn’t written for lawyers, try reading some.  It can even start looking normal after a while (say about the length of time it takes to get through law degree).  But research on the main street impact of legal language suggests that for most people, the law is likely to be either incomprehensible or very hard to read.

This problem is a focus of a research project which a team of us at ANU and Cornell LII have been addressing over the past months (Eric McCreath (Australian National University, Research School of Computer Science), Wayne Weibel (Cornell University Law School, Legal Information Insitute), Nic Ceynowa (LII), Sara Frug (LII), Tom Bruce (LII) and myself (ANU)).  With the generous help of thousands of LII users, as part of a citizen science project, we’ve been collecting data on the readability of law as well as demographic data about the users of law.

If you are concerned about access to law, and many are, the current situation is not really good enough.  Whether you tend to ‘human rights’, ‘democratic values’, ‘economic efficiency’, ‘rule of law’ or are just wanting to make sure your hapless minions follow your every command, you’ll be able to think of a good reason why the law should be more accessible (readable) than it is.

Of course the problem has been around for a very long time, and plain language is a standing goal of many legislative drafting offices.  Reform efforts have been underway since the middle ages.  Certainly legal language has improved considerably, particularly as a result of 19th and 20th century reforms with that goal in mind.  Still, the law can’t be said to be readily accessible to the general public, in the sense of its readability.

What has changed that makes the problem more urgent today is that the general public can now at least get to the law.  That’s the revolution that’s been achieved by online publishers of the law, including the Free Access to Law Movement and official and commercial law publishers.  As the UK’s First Parliamentary Counsel observed last year:

Legislation affects us all. And increasingly, legislation is being searched for, read and used by a broad range of people. It is no longer confined to professional libraries; websites like have made it accessible to everyone. So the digital age has made it easier for people to find the law of the land; but once they have found it, they may be baffled. The law is regarded by its users as intricate and intimidating.

In 2010, the Plain Writing Act was adopted by the US Congress with the aim of improving government writing. Sad to say, the Act itself is no model of plain language. Section, sub-section and paragraph roll on, line after line, provision after convoluted provision. In substance they say not much more than: write clearly so that the public can understand and use what you write.  Didn’t anyone see the irony?  Then again, reality check, most legislation is never read by the people who vote to make it law. Just to make sure the drawbridge was well and truly up, if you read through to the fine print at the end there is an important rider.  What happens if no one can understand what the law is supposed to mean? Well, nothing a judge can do about it.  Great aspiration, but …

A sea change could be on the way, though. The Good Law initiative is one great example of efforts to address the complexity and readability of legislation. What is significant is that how we are thinking about legal rules is changing.  Official publishers of the law are beginning to talk about the law as if it’s data.  The UK National Archives Office has even published an API — Application Programmers Interface (basically a ‘how to’ for developers who want to use the “data”).So now we’re thinking of law as data.  And we’re going to unleash computer scientists on it, to do whatever their imaginations can come up with. Bommarito and Katz‘ work on the legal code as a mathematical network is a great example of the virtually infinite possibilities.

Our own research uses the potential of computational technologies in another way. Online legal sites are not just ‘documents’.  They are places where people are actively interacting with the law. We used crowd-sourcing to engage with this audience, asking them to rate law on readability characteristics as well as exploring the demographics of who uses the law. Our aim was to develop a labelled dataset that could be used as input to machine learning. “Labelled data” is machine learning gold — hard to get, but if you can you get it, you can use it to make predictions about what human judges would say. In our case we are trying to predict whether a legal sentence will be readable or not.

In the process we learned quite a bit about the audience using the law, and about which law they use. Scouring the Google Analytics data, it became obvious that the law is not equally read. We may all be equal before the law, but the law is not equal before us. Just 37 sections of the US Code account for almost 10% of the page visits to US code pages (there are about 65,000). So a tiny fraction of the Code is being read all the time.  On the other hand there are huge swathes of the Code that hardly ever see the light of a back illuminated screen. This is not trivial news. Computer scientists love lists. Prioritised lists get their own special lectures for first year CS students — and here we have a prioritized list. You want to know what law is at the top of your priority list — the users will tell you. If you’re concerned with cleaning up the law code or making it easier to understand, there’s useful stuff here.

Ranking of sections by frequency of readership (on a logarithmic scale)

Ranking of sections by frequency of readership (on a logarithmic scale)

It will be no surprise that we found that law is harder for just about every part of the community than legal professionals.  What was surprising was that legal professionals (including law students), turn out to be a minority of those interested enough to respond, on the LII site at least.

These were just a few of the demographic insights we were able to draw.

On the machine learning front, we were able to show that machine learning can improve on traditional readability metrics  in predicting language difficulty (they’ve long been regarded as suspect in application to legal texts anyway). That said, it’s early days and we would like to extend the research we have done so far. There is a lot of potential for future research applying computational techniques to the readability of law.  A co-authored publication further describing the research introduced in this article will be presented at this year’s Law Via the Internet Conference being held at the end of September.

But while we’re thinking about it, there are other ways to think about `access’ to law.  What if instead of writing the law, it was visualized?  You know — like in pictures.  Before you storm off in contempt, note this: research is validating that pictures can improve user experience — for example in the contract space, where what your clients think of your contract can impact on your bottom line.

It’s radical enough unleashing computer scientists on legal rules. What might the law look like if we try thinking like designers?   ‘User experience’ of legal rules? That one didn’t come up in law school.  We’re in some surreally different world at this point. Designers create artefacts for people to use which are optimised for functionality, beauty and other characteristics –- not things that are meant to tell people what to do. ‘User experience’ is their kind of thinking.

As readers of Vox Pop will know, the idea of legal design is starting to get traction. Helena Haapio and Stefania Passera’s great article on legal design covers some of the field. An article they jointly published last year points out some of the benefits of visualization. Earlier this year, we worked on a joint paper exploring the feasibility of automating legal visualization. We were able to demonstrate the automation of visualization of clauses, such as a contract term clause, a liquidated damages clause or a payment clause. Visit our proof of concept site, where you can play with visualizing different options.

OK. So perhaps some of the above reads like we’re on the up-slope of the hype curve. But that of course is the fun. For those of us who’ve spent many years in the law, looking at the law from a different professional paradigm can help us see things that didn’t stand out before. It certainly enjoyable and brings a breath of fresh air to the law.

Michael CurtottiMichael Curtotti is undertaking a PhD in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University.  His co-authored publications on legal informatics include: A Right to Access Implies a Right to Know:  An Open Online Platform for Readability ResearchEnhancing the Visualization of Law and A corpus of Australian contract language: description, profiling and analysis.  He holds a Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of New South Wales, and a Masters of International Law from the Australian National University.  He works part-time as a legal adviser to the ANU Students Association and the ANU Post-graduate & research students Association, providing free legal services to ANU students.


Other related posts on VoxPopuLII on this topic include Law in the Last-Mile: The Potential of Mobile Integration into Legal Services by Sean Martin McDonald, Incomprehension Compounded by Mistranslation – The Imperatives of Access to Legal Information in South Africa by Eve Gray and Accessible Law by Nick Holmes

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed.

The growing usage of apps meant it was only a matter of time until they would find their way into legal education. Following up on a previously published article on LaaS – Law as a Service, this post discusses different ways that apps can be included into the law degree curriculum.

1 Changing legal education through the use of apps

There are different ways in which apps can be used in legal education in order to better prepare students for the legal profession. In this post we suggest three different possibilities for the usage of apps, reflecting different pedagogical styles and learning outcomes. What each of the suggestions has in common is to bring legal education closer to the real-life work of lawyers.

Through identifying aspects in which we perceive legal education as lacking quality or quantity, we apply and implement these to our suggestions for changed legal education. The aspects we view as lacking are: identifying and managing risks, the interaction between different areas of law, and proactive problem-based learning. To take each of these briefly in turn:

  • managing risks is something that practicing lawyers and other legal service professionals must do on a daily basis. Law is not only about applying legal rules but also about weighing options, estimating possible outcomes and deciding upon which risks to accept. Legal education has not traditionally included this in the curriculum, and students have arguably very little experience of such training in their studies.
  • interaction between different areas of law is often hard to incorporate in legal studies, which follow a block or module structure. Each course provides students with in-depth knowledge of that particular legal area. However, the interaction between such modules is lacking, with teachers often unaware of the content of preceding or succeeding courses. For students, a problem with this module structure can be that they forget the content of a course studied at an earlier stage in their education.
  • problem-based learning is generally encouraged and applied in legal education. However, most problem-based learning (PBL) is reactive, asking students to evaluate the legal consequences of a scenario that has already played out, instead of training students purely in after-the-fact solutions, in other words “clearing up the legal mess.” PBL should be made more proactive, aiming to train students in identifying and counteracting problems before they arise. This can also be viewed as an implementation of the first aspect, managing risks.

In aiming to include these aspects in legal education, we view technology as playing an important role. Perhaps ideally, the whole legal education could be re-structured in order to include such practical aspects that reflect the current legal profession; however, such change is perhaps too complex and viewed as somewhat unnecessary by those who are able to make such changes – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as the saying goes. An app is not necessarily the sole possible implementation method, but it serves as an example of how these aspects can relatively easily be brought within legal education.

The first teaching approach looks at legal aspects of apps themselves, where the apps are viewed as objects within law. Here students are provided with a set problem and are encouraged to consider how different areas of law may apply to the app in question, and how the various areas impact on each other. This approach implements both PBL and the interaction of different legal fields. Proactiveness may also be included by asking students to identify legal risks of the app, and how such risks could by reduced through the use of law.

The second approach brings together technology and law, and is as such a suitable suggestion for inclusion in a legal informatics course, or as part of more general jurisprudence. Students are given the task of developing a legal service app, and thus must implement law through a technological tool. Students must first identify a need for a service within an area of law of their choosing, and then develop an app which provides the service. This approach implements both PBL and proactiveness, and can also require students to consider both legal and technical risks.

The third approach aims to add value to the legal education as a whole, by making available an app to students to be used alongside teaching, complementing the existing education. Students are provided with the opportunity to test their knowledge, and combine different areas of study through interactive learning. Depending on the design of the app, this approach has the possibility of implementing all aspects: PBL, interaction of legal fields, and proactiveness or risk management.

2 Legal aspects of apps

Legal education in many countries around the world is set up as linear blocks of different legal fields and subject areas. As law is often divided into various sub-fields–such as private law, public law, administrative law, environmental law, or information technology law–it appears only natural to discuss and teach the subjects one by one. The amount of material to be learned by the student would otherwise be overwhelming. While in some countries, exams might encompass multiple fields of law, subjects are being taught in a consecutive order.

Though the pedagogical reasons for the linearity in legal education are convincing, some improvements are still possible. One idea that we would like to discuss here are legal aspects of apps that intertwine different legal fields and challenge the students to analyze one particular phenomena from various different legal angles. We are not suggesting any particular fora for this exercise; these might stretch from traditional in-class seminars to online e-learning platforms to a mixture of the two and be included in law school curricula either as compulsory or selective modules.

Apps and information communication technologies, in general, do not adhere to geographical, physical or time related boundaries. They inherently challenge the traditional legal system based on bricks and mortar. In this regard they are, therefore, well-suited for legal analysis.

Another reason to use apps as the object for analysis by students is their popularity among the younger (and older) generation and therefore the close relationship students have to them to start with. As an example, one can compare it to using Facebook when discussing privacy, as opposed to showing a large company’s employee database.

In order to reflect the real-life experience of the exercise even more, the students would be allocated a certain expert area. As at law firms, one student would be an expert in intellectual property rights, another in contract law, another in privacy, international law, consumer rights issues, etc.

The students would –from the perspective of their expert area–firstly investigate possible legal issues with a specific gaming app, for example. They would analyze the application of the rules and norms within their field and identify potential conflicts or loopholes within these rules. Their investigation would include testing the app itself, as well as looking at possible end-user agreements and other applicable contractual agreements between the user, the app store and the developer of the app.

The next step would be to identify and discuss possible overlaps, discrepancies and conflicts between the different areas of law in relation to the app. The exercise should result in a written and/or oral report of the different legal issues involved and solutions to potential conflicts between the law and the app.

Adding another layer of real-life scenario, each group could be asked to present their findings to an imaginative client who is the producer of the app. This simulation would allow the students not only to develop a legal analysis based on correlating fields of law but also to present the analysis to non-lawyers, translating legal jargon into understandable everyday language.

The exercise–analyzing an existing app–very much fits into the idea often conveyed in legal education that law is applied after an incident occurs. In order to add a level of proactivity, students could be asked to analyze an app under production, before it is launched. This would guarantee more proactive thinking by the students asking them to foresee potential conflicts and avoid them, rather than discussing legal issues after they have arisen.

While the exercise as such might not be a revolutionary idea, we think that the increased inclusion of such exercises in legal education would contribute to better preparation of students for their life as young lawyers.

3 Law’s implementation in apps

While the previous exercise fits well within the traditional legal education by asking students to deliver a legal analysis, a topic less discussed in undergraduate legal studies is how to employ technology for delivering law. With a few exceptions, students generally focus on analyzing the law rather than implementing law in technology.Change Priorities

Until several years ago legal analysis was the main business for lawyers, so legal education well reflected the profession. In the last few years, however, legal services delivered via and as technology have increased and opened up a new market for lawyers and legal professionals. This change should be reflected in legal education in order to prepare students for their future.

While the idea is not to replace lawyers with apps or software, an app or another technology could either help lawyers in their working tasks or deliver law as a valuable service for consumers, citizens, companies or organizations. Examples of such apps, both for lawyers and end-users, are mentioned in a post at iinek’s blog and Slaw; shorter lists can be found on iinek’s Delicious page and the iPad4lawyers blog.

In the exercise, students would look at law from a different perspective, i.e. how legal regulations affect the individual or organization. Going away from a linear text approach, students would have to translate law into a format that users or apps can read. In other words, law would have to suit the user/app, and not the other way around. Students would, therefore, have to go beyond text and translate rules into flowcharts, diagrams, mind maps and other visual tools in order for the app to be able to follow the law’s instructions.

Implementing legal rules into technology, therefore, not only encourages students to think proactively but it also motivates them to identify solutions for the application of the law and how rules could be transformed into practice. From a pedagogical point of view the exercise would allow the students to think about different aspects of law beyond the traditional case or contract. It would also encourage a wider viewpoint of law as a tool in society.

Again, how the exercise is included in the curriculum is a matter of taste. Technical assistance is of importance, in order for students to know what aspects to take into account and what schematics developers need in order to be able to create an app. The exercise could be set up as a competition (Georgetown Law SchoolIron Tech Lawyer) with an expert jury consisting of practicing lawyers and developers.

4 Legal education as an app

Talking about legal education as an app can have different meanings. While legal apps (for lawyers and individuals) and educational apps are rather common these days, legal educational apps are not so developed, yet.Puzzle

Legal education, as mentioned, is traditionally taught in blocks or modules, with very few references and links between them. This setup clearly has its benefits, not least logistically. There are clear arguments in favor of such an approach; planning and studying becomes easier for teachers and students alike, time limitations mean that implementing an approach that makes connections between each subject is hard. This is where we believe that technology has the potential to play an important role. Technology is not bound to physical classrooms and attendance requirements of students or teachers. It has the ability to be accessed at a time of the student’s choosing, without placing additional demands on instructors.

A legal education app could provide the key in aiding students to make connections between their study areas; it could be made to fit alongside a law degree, assuming a student’s knowledge in sync with their level of study, by including content from both current and past courses. The app would offer an easy way to implement an interactive, problem-based learning approach. It could provide additional content, quizzes, exercises, social media functions etc. complementing the education and enabling a holistic perspective.

Although no teacher-student relationship is required here, clearly pedagogical thinking would need to play a strong role so that a worthwhile learning environment for the individual could be created. Much time and effort would need to be invested in planning, and the application itself would need to be flexible to adjust to different study plans and so forth. Another issue is, of course, who would make the app. As curricula vary from law school to law school, and jurisdiction to jurisdiction, such an app is ideally built by those who know the curriculum. Such “in-house” expertise also means that potential bias from outside factors should be avoided.

Legal apps have already been introduced to help lawyers study for qualifying exams, e.g. BarMax. (These are often, however, still very topic-specific.) Implementing the same kind of thinking at the educational level would start to prepare students for their future workplace, allowing them to be better prepared for helping clients with real-world scenarios dealing with complex and interrelating legal issues. If students begin such thinking at the beginning of their legal studies, it becomes normal, arguably allowing for better educated graduates.

This last approach is perhaps a little future-oriented (although not as much as, for example, grading by technology), and it is of course not easy to implement at the university level; academics must work together with app developers to produce a tool of real value to students. However, even a slimmed-down version of such an app can be a tool for helping students prepare for exams, test their knowledge of legal areas, or simply make sure that they have understood concepts covered in teaching. Some examples of such implementations in legal education are shown here.

5 Conclusions

There is no doubt that apps are the future for legal services. To what extent they will be included in legal education is yet to be decided. Here we have shown three differing approaches that could help in this regard. Implementation of any or all of these would bring in aspects that are currently lacking in legal education.

Rather often discussions on technology and legal education focus on e-learning and online teaching environments. In our opinion, traditional offline exercises and their pedagogical value should not be underestimated, with technology offering an excellent platform as an object, tool or companion during legal education and life as a lawyer.

6 Sources

Christine KirchbergerChristine Kirchberger is a doctoral candidate & lecturer in legal informatics at the Swedish Law and Informatics Research Institute (IRI). Her research focuses on legal information retrieval, the concept of legal information within the framework of the doctrine of legal sources and also examines the information-seeking behaviour of lawyers. Christine blogs at and can be found as @iinek on Twitter.

Pam StorrPam Storr is a lecturer at the Swedish Law and Informatics Research Institute (IRI), and course director for the Master Programme in Law and Information Technology at Stockholm University. Her main areas of interest are within information technology and intellectual property law. Pam is the editor for IRI’s blog, Blawblaw, and can be found as @pamstorr on Twitter.


VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed. The information above should not be considered legal advice. If you require legal representation, please consult a lawyer.

Source: AALL Universal Citation Guide (First Edition).

In his recent post, Fastcase CEO Ed Walters called on American states to tear down the copyright paywall for statutes. States that assert copyright over public laws limit their citizens’ access to such laws and impede a free and educated society. Convincing states (and publishers) to surrender these claims, however, is going to take some time.

A parallel problem involves The Bluebook and the courts that endorse it as a citation authority. By requiring parties to cite to an official published version of a statutory code, the courts are effectively restricting participants in the legal research market. Nowhere is this more evident than in those states where the government has delegated the publishing of the official code to a private publisher, as is the situation in more than half of the states.  Thus, even if the state itself or another company, such as Justia, publishes the law online for free, a brief cannot cite to these versions of the code.

To remedy this problem, we (and others) propose applying a system of vendor neutral (universal) citation to all primary legal source material, starting with the state codes. Assigning a universal, uniform identifier for state codes will make them easier to find, use, and cite. While we do not expect an immediate endorsement from The Bluebook, we hope that once these citations find their way into the stream of information, people will use them and states will take notice. We think it’s time to bring disruptive technology to bear on the legal information industry.

About Universal Citation

“Universal citation” refers to a non-proprietary legal citation that is applied the instant a document is created. “Universal citation” is also called a “vendor-neutral,” “media-neutral,” or “public domain” citation. Universal citation has been adopted by sixteen U.S. states in order to cite caselaw, but universal citation has not yet been applied to statutes by any state. A review of universal citation processes for caselaw is helpful in understanding how we may apply universal citation to statutes.

Briefly, a case follows this process before appearing as an official reported decision:

When issuing a written decision, a court first releases a draft called a slip opinion, which is often posted on the court’s Website. Private publishers then republish the slip opinion in various legal databases. A party can cite the slip opinion using a variety of citation formats, depending on the database.

Afterwards, the court transmits the slip opinion to the jurisdiction’s Reporter of Decisions, who may be a member of the judicial system or a private company. The Reporter edits the opinions, and then collects and reprints them in a bound volume with a citation. To cite a particular page within a case, which is also referred to as pinpoint citation, a party cites the case name, the publication, the volume, and the specific page number that contains the cited content.

Before the advent of electronic publishing, these books were the primary source for legal research. And, while publishers still print cases in book format, the majority of users read the cases in digital form. However, opinions in online database lack physical pages. To address this, online publishers insert page numbers into the digital version of an opinion to correspond to page breaks in the print version. Thus, the pinpoint citation (or star pagination) for an opinion, whether in print or online, is the same.

Under most court rules, and Bluebook guidance, once the official opinion is published, the Reporter citation must be used (see Bluebook Rule 10.3.1).

The decisions are published by a private company, usually Thomson West, and anyone wanting to read them must license the material from the company. Thus, if you want to cite to judicial law, you must pay to access the Reporter’s opinions. (Public law libraries offer books and database access, but readers must visit the physical library to use their resources. Google Scholar also provides free access to official cases online, but they must pay to obtain and license the opinions. In other words, Google, not the end user, is paying for the access.)

Universal citation bypasses the private publisher, and allows courts to create official opinions immediately. Under this system, judges assign a citation to the case when they release it. They insert paragraph numbers into the body of the opinion to allow pinpoint citation. This way, the case is instantly citeable. There is no intermediary lag time between slip and official opinion where different publishers cite the case differently, and there is no need to license proprietary databases in order to read and cite the work. In the jurisdictions that have adopted this system, the court’s opinion is the final, official version. Private publishers may republish and add their own parallel citations, but in most jurisdictions the court does not require citation to private publishers’ versions. (However, Louisiana and Montana require parallel citation to the regional reporter.)

The American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) developed the initial standards for vendor neutral citation formats. AALL published the Universal Citation Guide in 1999, and released an updated edition in 2004. The Bluebook adopted a similar scheme in Rule 10.3.3 – Public Domain Format. Under this format, a universal citation should include the following:

  • Year of decision
  • State’s 2-letter postal code
  • Court name abbreviation
  • Sequential number of the decision
  • “U” for unpublished cases
  • Pinpoint citation should reference the paragraph number, instead of the page number

The majority of states employing universal citation follow the AALL/Bluebook standard, but a few have adopted their own styles. (Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Ohio employ universal citation but use a different format than the AALL/Bluebook recommendation.)

Most states that use universal citation adopted it in the 1990s. Cornell Law Professor Peter Martin details these events in his article Neutral Citation, Court Websites, and Access to Authoritative Caselaw. Professor Ian Gallacher of Albany Law School has also written about the history of this movement in Cite Unseen: How Neutral Citation and Americas Law Schools Can Cure Our Strange Devotion to Bibliographical Orthodoxy and the Constriction of Open and Equal Access to the Law. To date, 16 states assign universal citations to their highest court opinions. (To date, Arkansas, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Wyoming have adopted universal citation for caselaw.)  Illinois is the most recent state to adopt the measure (in June 2011), and the concept has been gaining traction in the legal blogosphere. John Joergensen at Rutgers-Camden School of Law started a cooperative effort called this summer.

Universal Citation and State Codes

Applying universal citation to state statutes can provide the same benefits as to caselaw, making statutes easier to find and cite, and improving access. While all states publish some form of their laws online for the public, as Ed has noted, these versions of state laws are often burdened by copyright and licensing restrictions. With these restrictions in place, users are not free to reuse, remix, or republish law, resulting in stifled innovation and external costs associated with using poorly designed Websites that take longer to search.

Though the AALL provides guidance on universal citation for statutes, no state has adopted it. The Bluebook does not specifically reference universal forms of citations for statutes and generally requires citation to official code compilations. There are exceptions for the digital version of the official code, parallel citations to other sources, and the use of unofficial sources where they are the only available source. (Bluebook Rule 12 provides for citation to statutes, generally. The Bluebook addresses Internet sources in Rule 18.)

The AALL’s Universal Citation Guide provides a schema for citing statutes in a neutral format. Rules 305-307 lay out standardized code designations, numbering, and dating rules, and each state has a full description in the Appendices. Basically, the format uses the state postal code, abbreviations for the name of the statutes (Consolidated, Revised, etc.), and a date.

As a result, the universal citations look similar to the official citations.

The AALL universal citation uses a name abbreviation for the state name and the name of the statute compilation. AALL’s format does not use periods in the abbreviations. It also uses a different convention for the year. The Guide’s recommendation is to date the code by a “legislative event,” to make the date more precise. Using “current through” dating provides a timestamp for the version of the code being used. This approach is less ambiguous than listing simply the year.

States like California and Texas have very large, segmented code systems with more complicated official citation schemes. The AALL mirrors these with the universal version, giving each subject matter code an abbreviation similar to the one used by The Bluebook.

Universal citation does not designate whether the code version is annotated, and of course it does not mention the publisher of the source.

Experimenting with Universal Citation

Justia is now applying the AALL’s universal citation to the code compilations on our site. We add this citation to the most granular instance of the code citation, along with a statement identifying and explaining it. So far, we’ve added citations to the state codes of Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, and South Dakota.

We started with Hawaii. The official citation and the universal citation are fairly similar:

Official: Haw. Rev. Stat. § 5-9 (2010)
Universal: HI Rev Stat § x-x (2010 Reg Sess)

This is how the code looks on the Hawaii Legislature’s site:

This is how the code section looks on Justia. We added the citation right above the text of the statute.

On our site, the full citation is visible, so readers can quickly identify and cite to it.  The “What’s This?” link next to the citation explains the universal citation.

We used the Legislature’s site to determine the date.

We also added the universal citation to the title tags. This allows search engine users to see the universal citation in their search results. It makes the search results more readable, because the text of the statute name appears next to the citation. For example, compare a search for “Haw Rev Stat 5-9″

with “HI Rev Stat 5-9″:

With the search results for the universal citation (properly tagged), more information about that citation is presented. This helps the user quickly identify and digest the best search results.

We hope to accomplish three objectives by attaching universal citations to our codes. First, we want to give people an easy way to cite the code without having to look at proprietary publications. Not all citation goes into legal briefs or other documents that require formal citation to “official” sources listed by The Bluebook. The AALL universal citation scheme is easy to read and understand, and uses familiar abbreviations (like postal codes). Providing a citation right on the page of the code section will help people talk about, use, and cite to code sections without having to access “official” sources behind a paywall.

Second, we hope to demonstrate that universal citation can be applied in an easy and straightforward manner. The AALL has already developed a rigorous standard for universal citation; we are happy to use it and not reinvent the wheel. Legal folks here at Justia researched the AALL citation and the proper year/date information, and programmers applied the citation to the corpus. Anyone can do this, including the states.

Third, we want to encourage the adoption and widespread use of vendor-neutral citation schemes. There’s been a lot of talk about vendor-neutral citation for caselaw, and we are excited by efforts like Applying these principles to state codes will help get universal citation into the stream of legal information online. Just seeing the citation and the “What’s This?” page next to it will introduce readers to the concept. The more people use universal citations for state statutes, the more states will be forced to examine their reliance on third party publishers as the “official” source.

Next Steps

We plan to apply the universal citation to all of the codes in our corpus, but we have encountered some obstacles to achieving this for all 50 states. First, some of the codes are quite large and difficult to parse. Ari Hershowitz has documented his efforts to convert the California code into usable HTML. States like California, Texas, and New York will be more labor intensive. Second, the currency, or timestamp, is not always readily apparent on the state code site. With Idaho, I had to make a call to the Legislative Office to find out exactly when they last updated the code.

Source: AALL Universal Citation Guide (First Edition).

The third, and perhaps most troubling, issue is the “unofficial” status of the online state code repositories. With the exception of a few states (see Colorado), the codes hosted on the states’ own Websites are papered over with disclaimers about their authenticity. While I understand the preference for “official” sources when citing a code, there seems to be no good reason why the official statutes of any state are not available online, for free, for everyone. These are the laws we must obey and to which we are held accountable. Does the public really deserve something less than official version? The states are passing the buck by disclaiming all responsibility for publishing their own laws, and relying on third-party publishers, which charge taxpayers to view the laws that the taxpayers paid for. I hope that as we apply a universal citation to our state statutes, the law will become more usable for the public. By taking disruptive action and applying these rules to our large corpus of data, we hope that more people will see the statutes and cite using universal principles, and that the states will take notice.

We have assigned a universal citation to the first few states as a proof of concept. We will also be sharing our efforts by supplying copies of the code with the universal citations included for bulk download at As we move forward with the remaining 46 states, we would love your input.  Comment here or contact me directly with your thoughts.

Peace and Onward.

[Editor's Note: For other VoxPopuLII posts on universal citation and the status of content in legal repositories, see Ivan Mokanov's post on the Canadian neutral citation standard, and John Joergensen's post on authentication of digital legal repositories.]

Courtney Minick is an attorney and product manager at Justia, where she works on free law and open access initiatives. She can be found pushing her agenda at the Justia Law, Technology, and Legal Marketing Blog and on Twitter: @caminick.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editor-in-Chief is Robert Richards, to whom queries should be directed. The statements above are not legal advice or legal representation. If you require legal advice, consult a lawyer. Find a lawyer in the Cornell LII Lawyer Directory.