Spotlight on Free: Caselaw Access Project
Back in 2015, Harvard Law School announced the launch of the Caselaw Access Project (CAP), a project of its Library Innovation Lab. This is a collection of almost seven million cases covering about 360 years of American judicial opinions. Though we know that more than one librarian felt a little queasy at the sight of venerable old case reporters having their spines severed and bindings undone so that their pages could be fed through high-speed scanners, this effort to digitize and democratize all of American case law was very much a welcome announcement.
You can find the results at case.law.
Though it’s easy enough to search the CAP database by keyword or citation, for example, the folks at the Library Innovation Lab and throughout the librarian community have other plans in mind for the 36.3 million or so pages in the collection. Their blog tracks and explains feature development in the database. For a lawyer who thinks very old legal opinions are good for nothing but ending sentences that begin with “It is well-settled that…,” each and every post in that blog will be an education. Similarly, a recent article in the online magazine of the American Association of Law Librarians describes projects in data mining, linguistics, link rot, citation analysis, natural language processing, named entity recognition, and topic modeling that are all being conducted using the CAP database.
CAP is not, and does not pretend to be, a one-stop shop for legal research. It appears, for example, that not everything that courts have done after the project went online has made its way into CAP. For instance, our current favorite Supreme Court Case, Georgia v. Public.Resource.Org is in CAP with a note in the sidebar that the “case source” is the commercial legal research service Fastcase. However, some recently-published federal appellate decisions that cite the case, such as Freeman v. Wainwright and Craft Smith, LLC v. EC Design, LLC do not (yet) seem to be.
In the end, CAP is a potential (and potentially powerful) tool to add to the free online legal research sources you should know about. While you may well find that it doesn’t answer all of your prayers for a free case law search engine, you should be aware that researchers in several fields are using its large data set and API to do work that is likely to make its way into the tools that the next generation of lawyers will use.