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RIP, MIX, LEARN: FROM CASE LAW TO CASEBOOKS

Like many projects, the Free Law Reporter (FLR) started out as way to scratch an itch for ourselves. As a publisher of legal education materials and developer of legal education resources, CALI finds itself doing things with the text of the law all the time. Our open casebook project, eLangdell, is the most obvious example.

The theme of the 2006 Conference for Law School Computing was “Rip, Mix, Learn” and first introduced the idea of open access casebooks and what later became the eLangdell project. At the keynote talk I laid out a path to open access electronic casebooks using public domain case law as a starting point. On the ebook front, I was a couple of years early.

The basic idea was that casebooks were made up of cases (mostly) and that it was a fairly obvious idea to give the full text of cases to law faculty so that they could write their own casebooks and deliver them to their students electronically via the Web or as PDF files. This was before the Amazon Kindle and Apple iPad legitimized the ebook marketplace.

The devilish details involved getting our hands on the full text of cases. We did a quick-and-dirty study of the 100 top casebooks and found that there was a lot of overlap in the cases. This was not too surprising, but it meant that the universe of case law — as represented by all the cases in all the law school casebooks — was only about 5,000 cases, and that if you extended that to all the cases mentioned — not just included — in a casebook, the number was closer to 15,000. I approached the major vendors of online case databases to try to obtain unencumbered copies of these cases, but I had no luck. Although disappointing, this too is not surprising, considering that these same case law database vendors are part of larger corporations that also sell print casebooks to the law school market.

Of course, the cases themselves are public domain and anyone with a userID and password could access and download the cases I needed. But the end-user agreements that every user must click “I Agree” to, include contract language that precluded anyone from making copies of these public domain cases for anything but personal use. Contract law trumped access to the public domain materials.

Fast forward a couple of years, to the appearance of Carl Malamud’s public.resource.or g, providing tarballs of well-formatted case law every single week. Add to that the promise of re-keying a large back catalog of cases via the YesWeScan.org project (also from public.resource.org) and we could now begin to explore ideas that had been simmering on the back burner for several years.

CASE SEARCH AS EBOOK: LEAN FORWARD / LEAN BACK

One of the neat features at FreeLawReporter.org is that it allows you to convert the results of a search into a downloadable ebook in .epub format which you can read on your Apple iPad or Barnes & Noble Nook and other ereader devices. (.epub ebooks may be readable on Amazon Kindles soon.)  The idea for this feature sprang from some articles I had read about how people read on the Web versus how people read books. Jakob Nielsen explains it well in a post entitled “Writing Style for Print vs. Web”:

Print publications — from newspaper articles to marketing brochures — contain linear content that’s often consumed in a more relaxed setting and manner than the solution-hunting behavior that characterizes most high-value Web use.

What does this have to do with case law and ebooks?

It’s all about what kind of reading you are doing. When you are doing research — especially online research, which involves refining your search terms, clicking through lots of links, and opening lots of browser tabs — you are “leaning forward,” actively looking for something that you plan to read in greater depth later. In the case of legal research, the results of your efforts are a collection of cases — dozens or hundreds of pages long. Once you have found the most on-point cases, you know that you need to read them deeply and carefully in order to follow and understand the arguments. This type of reading I call “leaning back,” and is more suited to the environment you create as a book reader than the one you create as a Web reader.

Turning case law searches into books seems like a natural consequence of the movement between “lean forward” Web searching and “lean back” book reading. There is a lot of anecdotal writing about this, but I am h ard-pressed to find scientific literature that is definitive. Fortunately, with FreeLawReporter.org, open source tools, and a smart developer, we can experiment and let users decide what works best for them. This is an important point that deserves some expansion.

“FREE” AS IN “FREE TO EXPERIMENT AND INNOVATE”

The primary product of the online legal database vendors is targeted primarily at big law firms. They get the big cases, have the big clients, and spend the most on legal research. As you move down the scale of firm size, you also move down in ability and willingness to pay for legal research, or ability to charge the cost of legal research back to the client. By the time you arrive at small firms and solo practitioners, the amount of time spent doing legal research is much reduced, and, in the case of purely transactional practices, legal research is done only rarely.

The use of these databases in legal education, however, is different. Legal research instructors try to give students a flavor for what using the databases in the real world will be like, but without knowing what type of law the students will end up practicing. The instruction, therefore, must be generalized. The databases are optimized for users who have almost unlimited (in time and cost) access. The databases were not designed for optimizing legal education. With the online database vendors, you get a powerful and comprehensive product, but you cannot change it to suit particular educational goals. You must adjust to it.

A database of the law should be available to the legal education community as a free, open, and customizable system that has affordances for instructors and researchers, i.e., law librarians and law faculty. We are only beginning to explore these ideas, but one analogy is that Wexis is to the Free Law Reporter as Windows is to Linux. The free and open aspect of the Free Law Reporter (FLR) will let legal research instructors, law faculty, law students, and even the public do things that are not possible within the contractually locked-down and/or digitally rights-managed systems that are designed primarily as a product for the most expensive lawyers in the marketplace.

With FLR, we can experiment with tweaking the algorithms behind the search engine to optimize for specific legal research situations. With FLR, we could create closed-universe subsets that could be used for legal research exercises or even final exams. With FLR, we could try out all sorts of things that we cannot do anywhere else.

I don’t expect FLR to be a replacement for anything else. It is a new thing that we have not seen before — a playground, a workshop, a research project, and a tool shed for legal educators. It can only grow in value and increase in quality, but we need help.

WHY “REPORTER”?

The choice of the name “Free Law Reporter” was deliberate. The “free” refers to both the cost and the open source aspects of the project, in the Free Software Foundation tradition. Richard Stallman has often expounded on the importance of access to the code you run on your computer; so too should every citizen have access to the laws of the land. In the past, case law was outsourced by the government to vendors who created the original Reporter system, which was made widely available to the public via state, county, and academic law libraries. Many libraries have, of necessity, cut back on their print subscriptions, reduced their hours of access, reduced their staff, or closed altogether, but the real loss of access to the public started when the law transitioned to online legal databases.

Now that online access to the law is the new normal, the disintermediation of law libraries is nearly complete, but the courts and governments have not kept up with the equal access during the transition. In the legal publishing lifecycle, there is an opportunity to add value, between the generation of the raw data of law, and the fee-based publication of law by online database vendors. FLR, with the help of law librarians, can seize that opportunity. This is not just a value proposition respecting public access to the law. Academic law libraries should have free and open access to the law, access that allows them to define and construct the educational environment for law students.

I am not sure whether the Free Law Reporter (FLR) can grow into what I envision. We are only at the beginning, but I believe it’s about time we got started. I do know thatCALI: The Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction we cannot succeed without the assistance and participation of the law librarian community. Right now, this assistance is mostly provided by law schools’ continued annual CALI membership.

We are working to make participation in the growth of FLR possible, by finding ways to tap the cognitive surplus of law librarians, students, faculty, and lawyers. The key challenge, I believe, is the construction of a participation framework where many small contributions can be aggregated into something of great, cumulative value. Wikipedia, Linux, and many other open source projects are exemplars from which we can take cues. There is so much to do and I am excited by the technical and organizational challenges that FLR presents. Expect to hear more from us about this project as we get our legs underneath us.

John MayerJohn Mayer is the Executive Director of the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI), a 501(c)(3) consortium of over 200 US law schools. He has a BS in Computer Science from Northwestern University and an MSCS from the Illinois Institute of Technology. He can reached at jmayer@cali.org or @johnpmayer.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editor-in-Chief is Robert Richards, to whom queries should be directed.

Free Access to LawHow are free access to law (FAL) services being used throughout the world? And how can these services be made sustainable? This post describes a research effort devoted to answering those two questions. The effort is funded by IDRC, and is being conducted by the Chair on Legal Information at the University of Montreal.

[Lexum -- the Canadian legal technology firm that created and administers CanLII, the Canadian Legal Information Institute -- began its existence as LexUM, a research unit of the University of Montreal. In 2009, LexUM was divided into two parts. One part, called Lexum, became an independent company, while the second part, called the Chair on Legal Information, remained with the University of Montreal. For purposes of simplicity, "LexUM" and "Lexum" will both be referred to in this post as "Lexum."]

This post also describes my personal experience of participating in this research and learning about free access to law.

Project Overview

At the Chair on Legal Information at the University of Montreal, with a team of researchers situated all over the world, we’ve been working on two on-going research projects since 2009: (1) A review of legal information in four West African countries, and (2) a global study on the sustainability of Free Access to Law initiatives.

In conducting these research projects over more than two years, we have interviewed lawyers, magistrates, judges, law students, public servants, law librarians, and anyone else we could find who could talk about legal information in their countries.

Here is how I came to be involved in this effort.

Being Introduced to Free Access to Law

Earthquake in IndonesiaOctober 2009: a 6.8-magnitude earthquake hits Indonesia; U.S. President Barack Obama receives the Nobel Peace Prize; we’re in the midst of the global financial crisis; and unbeknownst to me, I’m about to discover a world I have never heard of before: the world of Free Access to Law (FAL).

The idea of Free Access to Law, although it has been around for nearly 20 years in Canada, was entirely new to me in October 2009. Prior to that, I hadn’t worked in the field of law, although I had spent years in its neighbouring field, political science, and worked for a number of groups and organisations involved in issues concerning human rights and social justice.

A fairly simple concept it seemed to me, this FAL creature. How much could there be to know about putting the law on the Internet? Through our research, I was to find that FAL is a very complex phenomenon — a world of knowledge and expertise, questions and debates, values and principles; and a movement in which hundreds upon hundreds of individuals from all around the globe are active — and that many factors influence the effectiveness and sustainability of FAL services.

The First Study: The Use of Free Access to Law Services in West Africa

For the first study, our purpose was to find out how lawyers were accessing and using legal information in our subject countries: Burkina Faso, Niger, Senegal, and Togo.

Map of West AfricaThe context for this study was the development of free access to law services in these countries. In the first half of the 2000s, free access to law (FAL) initiatives for the countries of Burkina Faso and Niger — JuriBurkina and JuriNiger, respectively — were launched with the coordination of Lexum. Once JuriBurkina and JuriNiger had begun operations, efforts were soon in place to develop similar sites in Senegal and in Togo. In Senegal, after expressing initial enthusiasm for the idea, the Bar eventually lost interest in the project and declined to cooperate in moving the project forward. In Togo, the Bar expressed its interest in the project a little late, so Lexum included them in a review of legal information project, while seeking their support for FAL efforts at the same time

In our first study, we sought answers to the following questions: What kind of information did lawyers in these countries need, in what format, how often, and for what purpose? How had these FAL Websites changed the way lawyers in these countries do their job?

Here are the key findings of the first study. First, many legal professionals in these countries knew little about the FAL sites’ existence, let alone their purpose. Second, JuriBurkina and JuriNiger were found to have had a limited impact on the way the lawyers who are their target audience conduct their research, mostly because the lawyers either didn’t know about the sites or didn’t find what they were looking for on the sites.

The legal professionals we met during our research were not talking about how they are and have been using the sites, nor how free access to legal information online has changed their research habits. Rather, we were being told about the potential of the sites, and what is likely to change -– and this only in the instances in which the respondent had ever heard of or used either JuriBurkina or JuriNiger.

Third, the content of the FAL sites in these countries was very limited. These content limitations appeared to affect users’ perceptions of the relevance of the sites. When we examine the sites, we see little in the way of updates and few documents. JuriBurkina, hosted locally, was also down on a regular basis until Lexum brought it back on its servers, where it’s been available ever since.

Fourth, contextual factors contributed significantly to these content limitations. In Burkina Faso, Lexum and the local Bar were hoping to launch an all-inclusive legal information portal for the country, where users could access statutes, statutory material, case law, and eventually secondary material as well. Yet restrictions on access to legislative content led to the launch of a site containing mostly case law — in a civil law country. In Niger, access to judgments was greatly limited following the 2010 coup. With a military regime in place, data sources were less than keen on handing over decisions.

Fifth, differential access to technology may have affected the perceived usefulness of the FAL services. Both the lawyers and law students we met in West Africa have greater access to mobile phones (that lack Internet access) than they do to computers with Web access, and the West African FAL sites are available only via the Web.

The Second Study: The Sustainability of Free Access to Law Services

Our second, global study is known as the “Free Access to Law – Is it Here to Stay?” research project. [Editor's Note: The first report related to this study is available here.] With partners in Asia, Southern Africa, and West Africa, we have attempted to evaluate how we could ensure that sites providing legal information for free to the public can continue to do so in the long term. We were interested not just in funding models, but also in organizational models, taking into consideration variables related to political, social, and technological contexts. We asked: Can a strong team of dedicated individuals, with know-how and funding, build sustainable FAL initiatives?

For this second project, too, we went around interviewing the usual suspects — users and makers of freely accessible legal information — in Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, India, Indonesia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Uganda, Kenya, and South Africa. We asked the makers of FAL such questions as: How were they running their sites, coping with limited resources, deciding on which projects to undertake, and managing relationships with data sources?

Here are some key findings of this study. First, contextual factors, particularly political and technological, are critical to an FAL initiative’s capacity to ensure sustainability. Without the participation of those who make the law, be it legislative or case law, it is difficult for an FAL initiative to fulfill its mission.

Technological contextual factors are of particular importance respecting the sustainability of FAL initiatives. Legal Information Institutes have elected the Web as the best way to offer public and free access to legal information: The Web is relatively cheap, and reaches unparalleled numbers of users instantaneously. But easy and inexpensive Internet access — unfortunately, like many things in this world — is not a universal fact of life. Although perhaps one of the most democratic forums of our time, the Web is still far from being available in most households around the globe. [Editor's Note: The ITU's The World in 2010 pamphlet provides recent data on Internet use and access in developing countries.]

Second, respecting securing user buy-in to an FAL site, we found that the key is to ensure that the information published is highly relevant: that it is the information most needed by the site’s users. If FAL is to continue to play the pivotal role it has had in defining how users access legal information, sustainability is going to depend on our capacity to adapt, such that we provide a service needed by specific groups of users operating in specific contexts.

Common Findings of Both Studies

The findings of the studies actually coincide in more than one way. The first concerns the importance to users of the perceived relevance of information available from FAL services. This may seem like an obvious conclusion, but it was not expressly stated by our respondents, and had to be inferred from our data. The users we met had a tendency to speak of the “comprehensiveness” of collections as being one of the primary factors determining whether they would adopt an information source for their professional needs. A strong majority also said that before searching online, they would refer to their firm’s private collection, to their national archives, or to their Bar’s library. But their firm’s private collections were far from being “comprehensive.” What those collections were, though, was targeted, and focused on the lawyers’ specific informational needs.

The second common finding concerns the importance of contextual factors to the sustainability and perceived usefulness of FAL sites. Many free access to law initiatives are faced with limited access to technological, human, and financial resources. For initiatives working under such constraints, carefully choosing which information to prioritize for publication is essential. Yet, as noted above, our research suggests that the information that is published must be perceived as highly relevant by the users of the FAL service, if users are to “buy-in” to the service for the long term and integrate the service into their research practices.

In addition, the contextual factor of technology seems to affect both the sustainability of FAL sites and users’ perceptions of the usefulness of those sites. The evidence from West Africa suggests that the inability of lawyers and law students to access FAL sites via mobile phones may have contributed to users’ perceptions that the sites lacked relevant information. Respecting sustainability, the persistence of low levels of Internet access in developing countries poses a possible obstacle to widespread public buy-in to Web-based FAL services over the long term.

Issues Needing Further Research

In addition to the issues raised by the findings discussed above, our research on the use and sustainability of free access to law services has also highlighted additional issues that warrant further study. The first concerns justice and the rule of law. Free access to law, as a movement, gives itself the mandate to reinforce the rule of law. But in societies where a great social distance divides those who produce the law and those governed by it, we may need to go beyond the concept of law and start thinking about justice.

The second concerns the role of law in highly unequal societies. What is the role of a free access to law initiative in a context in which the law and legal information are not considered to belong to the public? In which legal information — written in a language not spoken by the majority of the population — is effectively the property of the elite? In which the law in force is a tool of oppression and segregation?

The third concerns access to technology and the digital divide. Limitations on Internet access must be taken into consideration not only respecting sustainability and users’ perceptions of the relevance of FAL services, but also to insure the coherency of FAL’s mission to democratize access to legal information. After over a decade of free access to law around the world, we must never stop thinking about what’s next and how we can best ensure open access.

Reflections and Conclusion

April 2011: I’ve now worked on IDRC-funded free access to law projects with Lexum and the Chair on Legal Information at the University of Montreal for just less than two years. When I began this work in the fall of 2009, free access to law seemed to me to be a relatively “simple” concept. Now, after eighteen months of research, I’ve come to understand the complexity and large scope of free access to law: that it involves hundreds of professionals working on six continents; that its success and sustainability are influenced by numerous technological, political, and social factors;One Size Fits All and that its value depends in large part on cultivating relationships with users in their particular social and cultural contexts.

Keep an eye out for our case studies coming out this summer—but to sum things up for now, it would be simply that, like most things in the social sciences, one size does not fit all.

[Editor's Note: For an earlier commentary on the sustainability of legal information institutes, please see Mariya Badeva-Bright's VoxPopuLII post, Is Free Access to Law here to stay?]

[Editor's Note: The original version of this post contained an error. The original version of the post stated that the studies described in the post are being conducted by Lexum and the Chair in Legal Information of the University of Montreal. That information is incorrect. The studies described in the post are being conducted solely by the Chair in Legal Information of the University of Montreal. Lexum has no role in the studies. We regret the error. The post has been corrected as of 5 May 2011.]

 

Isabelle MoncionIsabelle Moncion is a research assistant at the Chair in Legal Information of the University of Montreal, and a project manager with Lexum. She holds an MA in political science with a specialisation in international development from the University of Quebec in Montreal, and a B.Sc. in political science and communications from the University of Ottawa.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Robert Richards is Editor in Chief.

Supreme Court Building, IndiaIndian Kanoon is a free search engine for Indian law, providing access to more than 1.4 million central laws, and judgments from The Supreme Court of India, 24 High Courts, 17 law tribunals, constituent assembly debates, law commission reports, and a few law journals.

The development of Indian Kanoon began in the summer of 2007 and was publicly announced on 4 January 2008. Developing this service was a part-time project when I was working towards my doctorate degree in Computer Science at the University of Michigan under of guidance of Professor Farnam Jahanian of Arbor Networks fame. My work on Indian Kanoon continues to be a part-time affair because of my full-time job at Yahoo! India (Bangalore). Keep in mind, however, that I don’t have a law background,  nor am I an expert on information retrieval. My PhD thesis is entitled Context-Aware Network Security.

The Genesis

Indian Kanoon was started as a result of my curiosity about publicly available law data. In a blog article, Indian Kanoon – The road so far and the road ahead, written a year after the launch of Indian Kanoon, I explained how the project was started, how it ran during the first year, and the promises for the next year.

When I was considering starting Indian Kanoon, the idea of free Indian law search was not new. Prashant Iyengar, a law student from NALSAR Hyderabad, borgestotallibrary.jpgfaced the same problem. The law data was available but the search tools were far from satisfactory. So he started OpenJudis to provide search tools for Indian law data that were publicly available. He traces the availability of government data and the development of OpenJudis in detail in his VoxPopuLII post, Confessions of a Legal Info-holic.

Prashant Iyengar traces the genesis, successes, and impacts of Indian Kanoon in a more detailed fashion in his 2010 report, Free Access to Law in India – Is it Here to Stay?

The Goal

I have to make it clear that Indian Kanoon was started in a very informal fashion; the goals of Indian Kanoon were not well established at the outset. The broadest goal for the project came to me while I was writing the “About” page of Indian Kanoon. From this point on, the goals for Indian Kanoon started to crystallize. The second paragraph of this page summed it up as follows:

india-fear-justice.jpg“Even when laws empower citizens in a large number of ways, a significant fraction of the population is completely ignorant of their rights and privileges. As a result, common people are afraid of going to police and rarely go to court to seek justice. People continue to live under fear of unknown laws and a corrupt police.”

The Legal Thirst

During the first year after the launch of Indian Kanoon, one constant doubt that lingered in the minds of everyone familiar with the project (including me) concerned just how many people really needed a tool like Indian Kanoon. After all, this was a very specialized tool, which quite possibly would be useful only to lawyers or law students. But what constantly surprises me is the increasing number of users of the Website.  Indian Kanoon now has roughly half a million users per month, and the number keeps growing.

The obvious question is: Why is this legal thirst — this desire for access to full text of the law — arising in India now? I can think of umpteen reasons, such as an increase in the number of Indian citizens getting on the Internet, which is proving to be a better access medium than libraries; or that the general media awareness of law, or the spread of blogging culture, is fueling this desire.voxthirstgateofindia.jpg

On further reflection, I think there are two main drivers of this thirst for legal information. The first one is the resources now available for free and open access to law. Until very recently, most law resources in India were provided by libraries or Websites that charged a significant amount of money. In effect, they prohibited access to a significant portion of the population that wanted to look into legal issues. The average time spent per page on the Indian Kanoon Website is six minutes; this shows that most users actually read the legal text, and apparently find it easier to understand than they had previously expected. (This is precisely what I discovered when I began to read legal texts on a regular basis.)

The spread of the Internet, considered by itself, is not an important reason for the current thirst for law in India, in my view. Subscription-based legal Websites have been around for a while in India, but because of the pay-walls that they erected, none of them has been able to generate a strong user base. While the open nature of the Internet made it easy to compete against these providers, the availability of legal information free of charge — not just availability of the Internet — has removed huge barriers, both to start ups, and to access by the public.

The second major reason for this thirst for legal information — and for the traffic growth to Indian Kanoon — lies in technological advancement. Government websites and even private legal information providers in India are, generally, quite technologically deficient. To provide access to law documents, these providers typically have offered interfaces that are mere replicas of the library world. For example, our Supreme Court website allows searching for judgments by petitioner, respondent, case number, etc. While lawyers are often accustomed to using these interfaces, and of course understand these technical legal terms,indiasupreme_court_files.gif requiring prior knowledge of this kind of technical legal information as a prerequisite for performing a search raises a big barrier to access by common people. Further, the free-text search engines provided by these Websites have no notion of relevance. So while the technology world has significantly advanced in the areas of text search and relevance, government-based — and, to some extent, private, fee-based — legal resources in India have remained tied to stone-age technology.

Better Technology Improves Access

Allowing users to try and test any search terms that they have in mind, and providing a relevant set of links in response to their queries, significantly reduces the need for users to understand technical legal information as a prerequisite for reading and comprehending the law of the land. So, overall, I think advances in technology, some of which have been introduced by Indian Kanoon, are responsible for fostering a desire to read the law, and for affording more people access to the legal resources of India.

The Road Ahead

Considering, however, that fear of unknown laws remains in the minds of large numbers of the Indian people, now is not the time to gloat over the initial success of IndianKanoon. The task of Indian Kanoon is far from complete, and certainly more needs to be done to make searching for legal information by ordinary people easy and effective.

Sushant Sinha runs the search engine Indian Kanoon and currently works on the document processing team for Yahoo! India. Earlier he earned his PhD in Computer Science from the University of Michigan under the guidance of Professor Farnam Jahanian. He received his bachelor and masters degrees in computer science from IIT Madras, Chennai and was born and brought up in Jamshedpur, India. He was recently named one of “18 Young Innovators under 35 in India” by MIT’s Technology Review India.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editor in chief is Robert Richards.

Readers of this blog are probably already familiar with the U.S. Federal Courts’ system for electronic access called PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records).  PACER is unlike any other country’s electronic public access system that I am aware of, because it provides complete access to docket text, opinions, and all documents filed (except sealed records, of course).  It is a tremendously useful tool, and (at least at the time of its Web launch in the late 1990s) was tremendously ahead of its time.

However, PACER is unique in another important way: it imposes usage charges on citizens for downloading, viewing, and even searching for case materials. This limitation unfortunately forecloses a great deal of democracy-enhancing activity.

Aaron SwartzThe PACER Liberation Front

In 2008, I happened upon PACER in the course of trying to research a First Amendment issue.  I am not a lawyer, but I was trying to get a sense of the federal First Amendment case law across all federal jurisdictions, because that case law had a direct effect on some activists at the time.  I was at first excited that so much case law was apparently available online, but then disappointed when I discovered that the courts were charging for it.  After turning over my credit card number to PACER, I was shocked that the system was charging for every single search I performed.  With the type of research I was trying to do, it was inevitable that I would have to do countless searches to find what I was looking for.  What’s more, the search functionality provided by PACER turned out to be nearly useless for the task at hand — there was no way to search for keywords, or within documents at all.  The best I could do was pay for all the documents in particular cases that I suspected were relevant, and then try to sort through them on my own hard drive. Even this would be far from comprehensive.

This led to the inevitable conclusion that there is simply no way to know federal case law without going through a lawyer, doing laborious research using print legal resources, or paying for a high-priced database service.  My only hope for getting use out of PACER was to find some way to affordably get a ton of documents.  This is when I ran across a nascent project led by open government prophet Carl Malamud. He called it PACER Recycling.  Carl offered to host any PACER documents that anybody happened to have, so that other people could download them.  At that time, he had only a few thousand documents, but an ingenious plan: The federal courts were conducting a trial of free access at about sixteen libraries across the country. Anyone who walked in to one of those libraries and asked for PACER could browse and download documents for free. Carl was encouraging a “thumb drive corps” to bring USB sticks into those libraries and download caches of PACER documents.

The main bottleneck with this approach was volume. PACER contains hundreds of millions of documents, and manually downloading them all was just not going to happen. I had a weekend to kill, and an idea for building on his plan. I wrote up a Perl script that could run off of a USB drive and that would automatically start going through PACER cases and downloading all of the documents in an organized fashion. I didn’t live near one of the “free PACER” libraries, so I had to test the script using my own non-free PACER account… which got expensive. I began to contemplate the legal ramifications — if any — of downloading public records in bulk via this method. The following weekend I ran into Aaron Swartz.

Aaron is one of my favorite civic hackers. He’s a great coder and has a tendency to be bold. I told him about my little project, and he asked to see the code. He made some improvements and, given his higher tolerance for risk, proceeded to use the modified code to download about 2,700,000 files from PACER. The U.S. Courts freaked out, cancelled the free access trial, and said that “[t]he F.B.I. is conducting an investigation.” We had a hard time believing that the F.B.I. would care about the liberation of public records in a seemingly legal fashion, and told The New York Times as much. (Media relations pro tip: If you don’t want to be quoted, always, repeatedly emphasize that your comments are “on background” only. Even though I said this when I talked to The Times, they still put my name in the corresponding blog post. That was the first time I had to warn my fiancée that if the feds came to the door, she should demand a warrant.)

A few months later, Aaron got curious about whether the FBI was really taking this seriously. In a brilliantly ironic move, he filed a FOIA for his own FBI record, which was delivered in due course and included such gems as:

Between September 4, 2008 and September 22, 2008, PACER was accessed by computers from outside the library utilizing login information from two libraries participating in the pilot project. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts reported that the PACER system was being inundated with requests. One request was being made every three seconds.

[…] The two accounts were responsible for downloading more than eighteen million pages with an approximate value of $1.5 million.

The full thing is worth a read, and it includes details about the feds looking through Aaron’s Facebook and LinkedIn profiles. However, the feds were apparently unable to determine Aaron’s current residence and ended up staking out his parents’ house in Illinois. The feds had to call off the surveillance because, in their words: “This is a heavily wooded, dead-end street, with no other cars parked on the road making continued surveillance difficult to conduct without severely increasing the risk of discovery.” The feds eventually figured out Aaron wasn’t in Illinois when he posted to Facebook: “Want to meet the man behind the headlines? Want to have the F.B.I. open up a file on you as well? Interested in some kind of bizarre celebrity product endorsement? I’m available in Boston and New York all this month.” They closed the case.

RECAPTurning PACER Around

Carl published Aaron’s trove of documents (after conducting a very informative privacy audit), but the question was: what to do next? I had long given up on my initial attempt to merely understand a narrow aspect of First Amendment jurisprudence, and had taken up the PACER liberation cause wholeheartedly. At the time, this consisted of writing about the issue and giving talks. I ran across a draft article by some folks at Princeton called “Government Data and the Invisible Hand.” It argued:

Rather than struggling, as it currently does, to design sites that meet each end-user need, we argue that the executive branch should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that exposes the underlying data. Private actors, either nonprofit or commercial, are better suited to deliver government information to citizens and can constantly create and reshape the tools individuals use to find and leverage public data.

I couldn’t have agreed more, and their prescription for the executive branch made sense for the brain-dead PACER interface too. I called up one of the authors, Ed Felten, and he told me to come down to Princeton to give a talk about PACER. Afterwards, two graduate students, Harlan Yu and Tim Lee, came up to me and made an interesting suggestion. They proposed a Firefox extension that anyone using PACER could install. As users paid for documents, those documents would automatically be uploaded to a public archive. As users browsed dockets, if any documents were available for free, the system would notify them of that, so that the users could avoid charges. It was a beautiful quid-pro-quo, and a way to crowdsource the PACER liberation effort in a way that would build on the existing document set.

So Harlan and Tim built the extension and called it RECAP (tagline: “Turning PACER around” Get it? eh?). It was well received, and you can read the great endorsements from The Washington Post, The L.A. Times, The Guardian, and many like-minded public interest organizations. The courts freaked out again, but ultimately realized they couldn’t go after people for republishing the public record.

I helped with a few of the details, and eventually ended up coming down to work at their research center, the Center for Information Technology Policy. Last year, a group of undergrads built a fantastic web interface to the RECAP database that allows better browsing and searching than PACER. Their project is just one example of the principle laid out in the “Government Data and the Invisible Hand” paper: when presented with the raw data, civic hackers can build better interfaces to that data than the government.

PACER Revenue/Expenditure GraphFrom Fee to Free

Despite all of our efforts, the database of free PACER materials still contains only a fraction of the documents stored in the for-fee database. The real end-game is for the courts to change their mind about the PACER paywall approach in the first place. We have made this case in many venues. Influential senators have sent them letters. I have even pointed out that the courts are arguably violating The 2002 E-Government Act. As it happens, PACER brings in over $100 million annually through user fees. These fees are spent partially on supporting PACER’s highly inefficient infrastructure, but are also partially spent on various other things that the courts deem somehow related to public access. This includes what one judge described as expenditures on his courtroom:

“Every juror has their own flatscreen monitors. We just went through a big upgrade in my courthouse, my courtroom, and one of the things we’ve done is large flatscreen monitors which will now — and this is a very historic courtroom so it has to be done in accommodating the historic nature of the courthouse and the courtroom — we have flatscreen monitors now which will enable the people sitting in the gallery to see these animations that are displayed so they’re not leaning over trying to watch it on the counsel table monitor. As well as audio enhancements. In these big courtrooms with 30, 40 foot ceilings where audio gets lost we spent a lot of money on audio so the people could hear what’s going on. We just put in new audio so that people — I’d never heard of this before — but it actually embeds the speakers inside of the benches in the back of the courtroom and inside counsel tables so that the wood benches actually perform as amplifiers.”

I am not against helping courtroom visitors hear and see trial testimony, but we must ask whether it is good policy to restrict public access to electronic materials on the Internet in the name of arbitrary courtroom enhancements (even assuming that allocating PACER funds to such enhancements is legal, which is questionable). The real hurdle to liberating PACER is that it serves as a cross-subsidy to other parts of our underfunded courts. I parsed a bunch of appropriations data and committee reports in order to write up a report on actual PACER costs and expenditures. What is just as shocking as the PACER income’s being used for non-PACER expenses, is the actual claimed cost of running PACER, which is orders of magnitude higher than any competent Web geek would tell you it should be (especially for a system whose administrators once worried that “one request was being made every three seconds.”). The rest of the federal government has been moving toward cloud-based “Infrastructure as a Service”, while the U.S. Courts continue to maintain about 100 different servers in each jurisdiction, each with their own privately leased internet connection. (Incidentally, if you enjoy conspiracy theories, try to ID the pseudonymous “Schlomo McGill” in the comments of this post and this post.)

The ultimate solution to the PACER fee problem unfortunately lies not in exciting spy-vs-spy antics (although those can be helpful and fun), but in bureaucratic details of authorization subcommittees and technical details of network architecture. This is the next front of PACER liberation. We now have friends in Washington, and we understand the process better every day. We also have very smart geeks, and I think that the ultimate finger on the scale may be our ability to explain how the U.S. Courts could run a tremendously more efficient system that would simultaneously generate a diversity of new democratic benefits. We also need smart librarians and archivists making good policy arguments. That is one reason why the Law.gov movement is so exciting to me. It has the potential not only to unify open-law advocates, but to go well beyond the U.S. Federal Case Law fiefdom of PACER.

Perhaps then I can finally get the answer to that narrow legal question I tried to ask in 2008. I’m sure that the answer will inevitably be: “It’s complicated.”

Stephen SchultzeSteve Schultze is Associate Director of The Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton. His work includes Internet privacy, security, government transparency, and telecommunications policy. He holds degrees in Computer Science, Philosophy, and Media Studies from Calvin College and MIT. He has also been a Fellow at The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, and helped start the Public Radio Exchange.

Much to the dismay of several family members, I majored in anthropology in college. For those of you not up on your social sciences or Greek roots, anthropology is the study of all aspects of human existence, from the human genome, to cultures, to evolutionary history, to our primate cousins, and many things in between. Much to every one’s surprise, however, I couldn’t have picked a more useful major to help me navigate the ever-changing landscape of modern librarianship and legal information.

Besides analytical thinking and general research skills, my anthropology classes taught me how to make connections between seemingly divergent ideas, to dispassionately observe human interactions, and to respect differing cultures. Although they were not directly related to my career goals, I loved my primatology courses the most. Observing primate social networks allows one to distill the essence of a relationship without the confusing trappings of cultural artifacts. As an added bonus, monkeys are really cute.

LorisMy favorite non-human primate is not a monkey, actually. It’s the genus Nycticebus, more commonly known as the Slow Loris. They are absolutely adorable! Lorises are nocturnal, tree dwelling lower primates. They split off from the human evolutionary chain about 50 million years ago and haven’t evolved much since then. They don’t have many natural predators, but when they do need to defend themselves they rely on poisonous saliva or by curling up in a ball and hiding. Due to the lack of predators and their widely varied diet, they tend to move very slowly and cautiously through the trees.

You’re probably thinking to yourself right about now, “Well, this is nice and moderately interesting, but why is she writing about lorises in an legal information blog?” Well, if an overly cautious, slow moving, non-evolving primate that responds to threats by a poison tongue or hiding and pretending the threat isn’t there didn’t remind you of anything, well then I guess you haven’t spent much time around librarians.

What’s Wrong with Librarians?

Oh, everyone calm down. Put away your pitchforks. While no one loves to play “Poke the Bunhead with a Stick” more than I, that is not the point of this essay. Rather, I am here to answer the question, “What is wrong with librarians?” As a librarian who spends a significant amount of time discussing legal information issues with non-librarians, I am often asked this very question. Many times with some colorful adjectives thrown in for good measure.

Here’s the short answer: There’s nothing WRONG with librarians.

Libraries and librarians have different cultures and missions than other players in the information business, and thus place what may seem to be an unreasonable emphasis on certain attributes of an information delivery mechanism, or require characteristics of it that may seem unnecessary. Frankly, we think you’re pretty weird too. However, automatically labeling beliefs and actions different than yours as “wrong” creates unnecessary divisions between groups that must collaborate. Everyone – librarians, computer scientists, legal publishers, government bureaucrats, etc. – needs to work towards a greater cultural understanding of the other players so that mutually beneficial and important projects – for instance, law.gov – are not lost to petty infighting and simple misunderstandings that devolve into huge clashes.

Now for a slightly longer answer…

Libraries, as a cultural institution, have existed for millennia. Through that time their collections transitioned from clay tablets to papyrus scrolls to codices to printed books. It is only relatively recently – about one percent of the time of their existence – that libraries have been confronted with digital media. This means that library culture primarily evolved during a time span in which information containers were tangible objects. Furthermore, during this time libraries’ mission has been mainly to preserve and protect the information for the long-term good of the civilization, even at the cost of preventing contemporary users from accessing it. Finally, libraries have existed for the most part without competition in either resource collection or distribution.

Law librarians, in addition to the library enculturation, have often received legal training. If you’ve not had the pleasure, suffice it to say that respect for the rule of law, adherence to social order, and an obsession with order, ritual, and formality are just a few of the many benefits that one receives from an American legal education. (Other benefits include nightmares about Contract Law finals, an inability to watch courtroom dramas without pointing out the inaccuracies of the script, and a competitive streak that would put most Olympic athletes to shame.) The informally educated are very similarly situated.

So, here we have a group of people used to being in control of tangible objects that they would rather preserve than use. Additionally, these people put the legal system and its laws up on a pedestal and rigidly cling to its structure and hierarchy. Is it any wonder, then, that the idea of accepting an electronic version of a law hosted by a private organization without a stamp of government approval sends them into a bit of a tizzy?

Let’s go back to our furry friend the loris.

As I said, the lorises move slowly. Glacially, even. I mean, I’m talking sloooooooow. Why is that? Well, they don’t have a physical impediment keeping them that way. Nor should it be assumed that they are lazy or have some other character defect (as if one could assign character defects to wild animals.) As a matter of fact, when they choose to catch live prey they can move quite quickly. They operate this way because when one is creeping along small jungle branches high in the air in the middle of the night and not running from any particular predator, it pays off to take one’s time and be cautious.

Similarly, librarians don’t cling to print materials out of some romantic notion of the superiority of books, nor do they make repeated demands for stable, authenticated archives of electronic materials just to make you crazy. When one is tasked with the preservation of information – on behalf not just of those looking for it ten years from now, but also of those looking hundreds if not thousands of years from now – and no one else is really in the information distribution or storage business, it pays to take one’s time and be cautious when determining what container to put that information in, especially when what you’ve been doing for the past 1,000 or so years has been working for you.

You Say You Want an Evolution…

A major factor in the loris’s being able to move slowly is that it has few predators or competitors for resources. At least until recently, that is. A primate by the name of Homo sapiens has hunted the loris right onto the endangered species list.

Like the loris, libraries are no longer the sole occupiers of their niche spot in the environment . . . and what a rapidly changing environment it is. No longer are libraries the sole gatekeepers and preservers of information. Information is also coming from new providers and in different containers than what libraries have been used to.

While I said above that they are not “wrong,” that does not mean that libraries and librarians couldn’t do some things better. Librarians, as a species, are very risk-averse. If I had to guess, I’d say it had something to do with being the only information gatekeepers for so long. Now, generally, there’s nothing wrong with being a little cautious, especially when there’re no do-overs (as is the case with lost information.)

But with librarians this risk aversion has grown like a cancer and now manifests itself as a fear of failure. This fear has become so ingrained in the culture that innovation and progress are inhibited. Contrast that with the tech sector – home to many future library partners – where trial and error are encouraged and participants have a freedom to fail. It behooves librarians to embrace this culture of innovation and develop a respect for failure lest they become completely stagnant and, as a result, obsolete.

Unlike the loris, libraries are operated by sapient beings that can adapt to changes in their environments. Libraries need to choose to acknowledge these changes and model some – but not all – of their behaviors after newer and perhaps more successful members of the ecosystem. As it stands now, librarian participation in a multidisciplinary project is often regarded as more of a hindrance than a help.  If librarians don’t change, they will eventually stop being invited to the conversation.   Ideally these other ecosystem members will be patient with the process of evolution and appreciate the qualities the libraries posses and the values that librarians bring to a discussion.

One way to develop this mutual respect is to interact professionally and demonstrate one’s knowledge, skills, and willingness to collaborate. Unfortunately, up until now most interaction between librarians and other information industry members has arisen out of conflict – librarians wagging their fingers, telling someone that they’re wrong or complaining that librarians are being persecuted by the mean old vendors. Another important factor in gaining professional respect is the ability to give and receive constructive criticism without resorting to petty snipes or retreating to salve wounded egos.

Get in the Goddamn Wagon

A few weeks ago, I was sent a link to Peter Brantley‘s blog post, “Get in the Goddamn Wagon,” an inspiring call to action for newer librarians to become involved in future planning for libraries. It’s a good read and worth a look, but I bring it up here for two perhaps non-obvious reasons. One, it’s notable for who sent it to me – none other than Thomas R. Bruce, Director of the Legal Information Institute.

Tom has been a valuable friend and mentor to me. He is not, however, a librarian. Still, because I know he respects me while perhaps not always understanding the reasons behind my actions – and vice versa – we have been able to forge a cooperative professional relationship. Because of this mutual respect, when he offers a suggestion on how libraries might change, I listen and consider his suggestion instead of automatically discounting it because he’s not a librarian.

The other reason that I mention that blog post is that it introduced me to the William Faulkner quote, “Them that’s going,” he said, “get in the goddamn wagon. Them that ain’t, get out of the goddamn way.” I wish I could say, “Librarians . . . computer scientists . . . legal publishers . . . let’s all hold hands now and sing kum-bay-yah!” However, while I am hopeful that cultural differences between these groups can be diminished and a feeling of amity develops between them, I am realistic.

So instead I say, “Get in the goddamn wagon or get out of the goddamn way.” I imagine at times the ride will be about as comfortable and collegial as a bunch of children crammed in a station wagon for a family vacation road trip. There is no ultimate “Mother” authority to keep us all in line with the threat of turning around, however. For these collaborative efforts to be successful, no constituency or person gets to be “in charge” all the time. It doesn’t matter how many millions of dollars in grant money one has, or how many thousands of members in one’s organization; everyone’s expertise needs to be used and respected. It won’t be easy and it won’t feel natural, but we all must make a conscious effort to work together.

How will this happen? We could start with meetings on neutral ground (physical or virtual) designed for the express purpose of ironing out differences between the camps. (Perhaps a Festivus airing of grievances?) Ideally, though, I’d love for it to happen more organically. More multi-disciplinary organizations, conferences, and publishing platforms (like Vox PopuLII) need to be created so that we can learn from each other. Until such time that these exist, more trips into the other camp need to be made – attend their conferences, publish in their discipline’s journals: anything that will start to put human faces on the monolithic titles such as “librarian” or “publisher” so that we can get past the distrust and the disputes and move on to the more important work.

The projects that we can (and should) be collaborating on are new and different and will completely change the way people access their law. As such, they will be met with resistance and suspicion and push-back from commercial vendors and government agents. Presenting a united front and creating a system that benefits from all of our areas of expertise from the beginning will go a long way towards legitimizing our cause. We have one chance to make a first impression, one opportunity to make free law an accepted resource in this generation. Don’t mess it up.

[Editor's Note: For other ideas respecting collaboration between law librarians and members of the legal informatics community, please see our earlier post, A Law Librarian Looks at Legal Informatics Scholarship.]

Photo credits:
Loris: 1887 Engraving of Slow Loris
Librarian: Of unknown origin
Librarian in stacks: The Bookworm by Carl Spitzweg
Horror and Agony, from Darwin’s Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals
Wagon: Harris & Ewing, Wagon and US Capitol (altered by author)

Sarah Glassmeyer is the Faculty Services and Outreach Librarian at the Valparaiso University School of Law in Valparaiso, Indiana. When she’s not putting the fear of God and court clerks into first year law students, she writes about the intersection of legal information, libraries and the Internet at SarahGlasmeyer(dot)com.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editor-in-chief is Robert Richards.

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This post explores ways in which information technology (IT) can enhance access to justice. What does it mean when we talk about “the access to justice crisis,” and how can information technology help to resolve it? The discussion that follows is based on my 2009 book, Technology for Justice: How Information Technology Can Support Judicial Reform, particularly Part 4, on the role of information and IT in access to justice.

The normative framework for access to justice

International conventions guarantee access to a court. Everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing by an independent tribunal in the determination of their civil rights and obligations or of any criminal charge against him or her, according to The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (article 14) and regional conventions like the The European Convention on Human Rights (article 6). In practice, the normative framework for access to justice does not provide us with clearly defined concepts.

The major barriers to access to justice identified in the scholarly literature are:

  • Distance, which can be a factor impeding access to courts. In many countries, courts are concentrated in the main urban centers or in the capital.
  • Language barriers, which are present when justice seekers use a language that is different from the language of the courts.
  • Physical challenges, like impaired sight and hearing and motor and cognitive impairments; these as a barrier to access are an emerging topic in the debate on technology support in courts.

These first three factors are all relatively straightforward and do not strike at the heart of the legal process.

  • Cost, for instance lawyers’ fees, court fees and other components of the price of access to justice, in many forms, has been identified as a factor affecting access to courts. However, cost is extremely hard to research and subject to a lot of ramifications. Because of this complexity, cost will not be discussed directly in this post.
  • Lack of information and knowledge, lack of familiarity with the court process, the complexity of legal and administrative systems, and lack of access to legal information are commonly identified factors (Cotterrell, The Sociology of Law p. 251; Hammergren, Envisioning Reform: Improving Judicial Performance in Latin America, p. 136). They are related because they all refer to the availability of information. They are the starting point for our discussion.

Potentially, information on the Internet can provide some form of solution for these problems, in two ways. First, access to information can support fairer administration of justice by equipping people to respond appropriately when confronted with problems with a potentially legal solution. Access to information can compensate, to some extent, for the disadvantage one-shotters experience in litigation, thereby increasing their chance of obtaining a fair decision. Second, the Internet provides a channel for legal information services, although experience with such online service provision is limited in most judiciaries. The discussion here will therefore focus on access to legal information and knowledge. Lack of information and knowledge as a barrier to access to justice is the focus for discussion in the first few paragraphs. The first step is to identify the barriers.

Knowledge and information barriers to access to justice

What are the information barriers individuals experience when they encounter problems with a potentially legal solution? We need empirical evidence to find an answer to this question, and fortunately some excellent research has been done, which may help us. In the U.K., Hazel Genn led a team that researched what people do and think about going to law. Their 1999 report is called Paths to Justice. A similar exercise led by Ben van Velthoven and Marijke ter Voert in The Netherlands, called Geschilbeslechtingsdelta 2003 (Dispute Resolution Delta 2003), was published in 2004. Although there are some marked differences between them, both studies looked at how people deal with “justiciable problems”: problems that are experienced as serious and have a potentially legal solution. Analysis of empirical evidence of people and their justiciable problems in England and Wales and The Netherlands produced the following findings with regard to these barriers:

  • Inaction in the face of a justiciable problem because of lack of information and knowledge occurs in a small percentage of cases.
  • Unavailability of advice negatively affects dispute resolution outcomes. It lowers the resolution rate. Cases in which people attempted to find advice were resolved with a higher rate of success than those of the self-helpers.
  • Respecting the inability to find advice: If people go looking for advice, the barriers to finding it have more to do with their own competencies, such as confidence, emotional fortitude, and literacy skills, than with the availability of the advice. In the United Kingdom, about 20 percent of the population is so poor at reading and writing that they cannot cope with the demands of modern life, according to data from the National Literacy Trust. In The Netherlands, the percentage of similarly low literacy is estimated at about 10 percent, according to data from the Stichting Lezen en Schrijven, the Reading and Writing Foundation.
  • Respecting incompetence in implementing the information received: Different competence levels will affect what can be done with information and advice. Competencies in implementing the information received include, for example, skills such as working out what the problem is, what result is wanted, and how to find help; simple case-recording skills; managing correspondence; confidence and assertiveness; and negotiating skills, according to research reported by Advicenow in 2005. Some people do not want to be empowered by having information available. They want assistance, or even someone to take over dealing with their problem. People with low levels of competence in terms of education, income, confidence, verbal skill, literacy skill, or emotional fortitude are likely to need some help in resolving justiciable problems.
  • Ignorance about legal rights exists across most social groups. Genn notes that people generally are not educated about their legal rights (Genn p. 102).
  • Respecting lack of confidence in the legal system and the courts and negative feelings about the justice system, Genn observes that people are unwilling voluntarily to become involved with the courts. People associate courts with criminal justice. People’s image of the courts is formed by media stories about high profile criminal cases (Genn p. 247). This issue is related to the public image of courts, as well as to the wider role of courts as setters of norms.

Information needs for resolving justiciable problems

After identifying knowledge and information barriers, the next step is to uncover needs for information and knowledge related to access to justice. Those needs are most strongly related to the type of problem people experience. The most frequently occurring justiciable problems are simple, easy-to-solve problems, mostly those concerning goods and services. People themselves resolve such problems, occasionally with advice from specialist organizations like the consumers’ unions (e.g., in the U.S., the National Consumers League). For more important, more complex problems, people tend to seek expert help more frequently. The most difficult to resolve are problems involving a longer-term relationship, such as labor or family problems. Any of the problems discussed in this section may lead to a court procedure. However, the problems that are the toughest to resolve are also the ones that most frequently come to court.

The first need people experience is for information on how to solve their problem. In The Netherlands, the primary sources for this type of information are specialized organizations, with legal advice providers in second place. In England and Wales, solicitors are the first port of call, followed by the Citizens’ Advice Bureaux. In both countries, the police are a significant source of information on justiciable problems. This is especially remarkable because the problems researched were not criminal justice issues.

If people require legal information, they primarily need straightforward information about rules and regulations. Next, they look for information about ways to settle and handle disputes once they arise. Information about court procedures is a separate category that becomes relevant only in the event people need to go to court.

Respecting taking their case to court: People need information on how to resolve problems, on rights and duties, and on taking a case to court. The justiciable problems that normally come to court tend to be difficult for people themselves to resolve. These problems are also experienced as serious. Many of them involve long-term relationships: family, employment, neighbors. Therefore, people will tend to go looking for advice. Some of them may need assistance. Most people seek and receive some kind of advice before they come to court.

In summary, information needs in this context are mostly problem-specific. Most problems are resolved by people themselves, sometimes with the help of information, or help in the form of advice or assistance. The help is provided by many different organizations, but mostly by specialized organizations or providers of legal aid and alternative dispute resolution (ADR).

Different dispute resolution cultures

There are, besides these general trends, interesting differences between England and Wales and The Netherlands. The results with regard to dispute outcome, for instance, show the following:

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The Netherlands has fewer unresolved disputes, more disputes resolved by agreement, and the rate of resolution by adjudication is half that of England and Wales. It looks as if there is more capacity for resolving justiciable problems in Dutch society than there is in society in England and Wales. Apart from the legacy of the justice system where there is a propensity to settle differences that Voltaire described in one of his letters, many factors may be at work in The Netherlands to produce a higher level of problem-solving capacity. One probable factor is the level of education and the related competence levels for dealing with problems and the legal framework. The functional illiteracy rate is only half that in the United Kingdom. Another factor may be a propensity to settle differences by reducing the complexity of problems through policies and routines.

Diversion or access, empowerment or court improvement?

The debate respecting whether diversion or court improvement should come first as an objective of legal policy, has been going on for some time. These are the options under discussion:

  • Preventing problems and disputes from arising;
  • Equipping as many members of the public as possible to solve problems when they do arise without needing recourse to legal action;
  • Diverting cases away from the courts into private dispute resolution forums; and
  • Enhancing access to legal forums for the resolution of disputes.

Genn argues that it is not an answer to say that diversion and access should be the twin objectives of policy, because they logically conflict. I would like to contribute some observations that could provide a way out of this apparent dilemma.

First, user statistics from the introduction of the online claim service Money Claim Online and the case study in Chapter 2.3 of my book suggest that changes in procedure facilitating access do not in themselves lead to higher caseloads. Changes observed in the caseloads are attributable to market forces in both instances.

The other observation is that Paths to Justice and the Dispute Resolution Delta clearly found that self-help is experienced as more satisfying and less stressful than legal proceedings. Moreover, resolutions are to a large degree problem specific. A way out of the dilemma could be that specialist organizations that make it their business to provide specific information, advice, and assistance, should enhance their role. There is an empirical basis for this way out in the research reported in Paths to Justice and the Dispute Resolution Delta. Although goods and services problems are largely resolved through self-help, out-of-court settlement, or ADR, nonetheless a fair number of them still come to court. Devising ways to assist individuals in informal problem solving and diverting them to other dispute resolution mechanisms can keep still more of these problems out of court. Even in matters for which a court decision is compulsory, like divorce, mediation mechanisms can sort out differences before the case is filed. Clearly, information on the Internet will provide an entry point for all of these dispute resolution services. Online information can thus help to keep as many problems out of court as possible. All this should not keep us from making going to court when necessary less stressful. Information can help reduce people’s stress, even as it improves their chances of achieving justice. The Internet can be a vehicle for this kind of information service, too.

Taking up this point, the next section focuses on courts and how information technology, particularly the Internet, can support them in their role of information providers to improve access to justice. Two strains concerning the role of information in access to justice run through this theme: information to keep disputes out of court, and information on taking disputes to court.

Information to keep disputes out of court

An almost implicit understanding in the research literature is that parties with information on the “rules of thumb” of how courts deal with types of disputes will settle their differences more easily and keep them out of court. Such information supports settlement in the shadow of the law. Most of this type of settlement will be done with the support of legal or specialist organizations. In the pre-litigation stage, information about the approaches judges and courts generally take to specific types of problems can help the informal resolution of those problems. This will require that information about the way courts deal with those types of problems becomes available. Some of the ways in which courts deal with specific issues are laid down in policies. Moreover, judicial decision making is sometimes assisted by decision support systems reflecting policies. In order to help out-of-court settlement, policies and decision support systems need to be available publicly.

Information on taking disputes to court

If a dispute needs to come to court, information can reduce the disadvantage one-shotters have in dealing with the court and with legal issues. This disadvantage of the one-shotters — those who come to court only occasionally — over against the repeat players who use courts as a matter of business, was enunciated by Marc Galanter in his classic 1974 article, Why the Haves Come Out Ahead: Speculations on the Limits of Legal Change. Access to information for individual, self-represented litigants increases their chances of obtaining just and fair decisions. Litigants need information on how to take their case to court. This information needs to be legally correct, as well as effective. By “effective,” I mean that the general public can understand the information, and that someone after reading it will (1) know what to do next, and (2) be confident that this action will yield the desired result. In a case study, I have rated several court-related Web sites in the U.K. and in The Netherlands on those points, and found most of them wanting. My test was done in 2008, and most of the sites have since changed or been replaced. And although the U.K. Court Service leaflet D 184 on how to get a divorce got the best score, my favorite Web site is Advicenow.

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Such an information service requires a proactive, demand-oriented attitude from courts and judiciaries. Multi-channel information services, such as a letter from the court with reference to information on the court’s or judiciary’s Web site, can meet people’s information needs.

Beyond information push

Other forms of IT, increasingly interactive, can provide access to court. [Editor's note: Document assembly systems for self-represented litigants are a notable example.] Not all of them require full-scale implementation of electronic case management and electronic files. In order to be effective for everyone, the information services discussed will require human help backup. There are also technologies to provide this, but they may still not be sufficient for everyone. The information services discussed here, in order to be effective, will need to be provided by a central agency for the entire legal system. A final finding is the importance of public trust in the courts in order for individuals to achieve access to justice. Judiciaries can actively contribute to improved access to justice in this field by ensuring that correct information about their processes is furnished to the public.

In summary, access to justice can be effectively improved with IT services. Such services can help to ameliorate the access-to-justice crisis by keeping disputes out of court. The information services identified here should serve the purpose of getting justice done. They should not keep people from getting the justice they deserve by preventing them from taking a justified concern to court. If people need to go to court, information services can help them deal with the courts more effectively.

[Editor's Note: A very useful list of resources about applying technology to access to justice appears at the technola blog.]

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Dory Reiling, mag. iur. Ph.D., is a judge in the first instance court in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. She was the first information manager for The Netherlands’ Judiciary, and a senior judicial reform expert at The World Bank. She is currently on the editorial board of The Hague Journal on the Rule of Law and on the Board of Governors of The Netherlands’ Judiciary’s Web site Rechtspraak.nl. She has a Weblog in Dutch, and an occasional Weblog in English, and can be followed on Twitter at @doryontour.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editor in chief is Robert Richards.