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[ This post was contributed by Daniel Poulin, the founding director of CanLII, the first open-access publisher of law outside the United States, and a good friend of ours for many years ].

The Origins

In the eighties and nineties, the nascent Internet was closely connected with a culture of sharing. In those times, sharing did not meant “sharing economy” in today’s sense (Airbnb, Uber, etc), but making something available for free on the Internet. The dream was that over time even more things would be available for free and that everybody would benefit from it. It is the context in which I personally became interested in making Canadian law accessible for free on the Internet.

My first models were FTP sites accepting anonymous connections. I vaguely remember one at Stanford giving access to computer fonts and executable programs. I thought that the same approach could serve legal purposes and I was not alone thinking so. Indeed, at the beginning of the nineties, several American university professors, researchers and technology specialists started to use the Gopher technology to publish legal documents, generally case law collections. These offerings were not necessarily up-to-date or coherent, to say nothing about being complete. We were nevertheless in awe to discover that legal information could be made freely accessible as simply as that. I decided to do the same at the Centre de recherche en droit public (CRDP) of the University of Montreal and I set up a Gopher server.

I was started, yet the real epiphany for me was a presentation by Peter W. Martin and Thomas R. Bruce about the Legal Information Institute in fall 1992 in Montreal. Even better than a Gopher site, they were developing a World Wide Web site and they were ambitious. This was exactly what I wanted to do. I briefly met with them after their talk. I remember that my worries about converting decisions in HTML were brushed off by Tom in the offhand manner he always had with perceived technical difficulties. I was not alone in being impressed the LII work. As a matter of fact, in the following years, Internet publishing started adding up in American law schools (see Fig. 1).


Fig 1: Screen shot of the CRDP Gopher server circa 1993 listing legal Gopher sites

However the general enthusiasm for legal publishing did not last long. By the end of the nineties, most of these initiatives had been abandoned, although the model set by Peter W. Martin, Thomas R. Bruce and their small team at Cornell remained, and had also found followers abroad, in Canada and Australia and, few years later, in the UK.

A web server was launched by Lexum at the U. of Montreal in summer 1994 to publish the decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada. In 1995, the Australasian Legal Information Institute (AustLII) was set up in Sydney and they soon joined in with a web server as well. In retrospect, it seems that these three initial teams, which are still active today, LII, Lexum and AustLII were all characterized by a mix of research activities, technical developments and publishing. The pure play publishers in law schools probably never found a way to obtain the institutional and financial support required to keep going.

At the turn of the century there were a handful of groups in academia who were actively exploring the potential of the Internet to serve the law and were maintaining free access to law resources. This was the nucleus which was to grow and become the Free Access to Law Movement. Soon BaiLII, PacLII, HKLII and CyLAW and several others were to follow the LII model and start publishing.

The Evolution of LIIs

The approach initially developed by the LIIs, continued and further developed by several other academic groups, was apparently taking off. It was already successful in several common law countries. Colleagues in various European countries were starting to pay attention to the LII model. The older and better-established LIIs were involved in empowerment projects aiming at establishing free access in developing countries. We started to envision a constellation of LIIs covering the world. At the Law via the Internet Conference in 2002, a founding document was drafted (the Montreal Declaration on Free Access to Law) and an informal organization of legal information institutes, the Free Access to Law Movement, was established to further develop the LII model and to reach out to all those interested in maximizing access to public legal information.

More than twenty years later, taking stock of progress made, we can only note spectacular changes in many countries. In Canada, the Canadian Legal Information Institute (CanLII) now constitutes the first source of legal information for legal professionals. CanLII will soon have 2 million decisions published, frequently in both French and English. All statutes and regulations enacted over the last 15 years from all fourteen Canadian jurisdictions are also available. According to a survey of legal professionals prepared for CanLII in 2012, 56% of respondents start their legal research on CanLII. Four years later, CanLII’s usage statistics doubled again.

Beyond CanLII, to understand the strength of the Canadian free access to law system today, one must consider the favorable policies adopted by the Canadian Judicial Council and subsequently implemented by all Canadian courts. First to be noted there is the adoption of a neutral citation system. The existence of an authoritative way to cite judgments outside the privately-owned sphere of commerce now constitutes a central element of the legal information system in Canada. Courts add a citation they own and control to all their distributed decisions (something like “2017 QCCA 16”). This identifying element pertains to the decision and must follow it. Furthermore, decisions distributed by courts are final. There are no rules precluding the citation of a court decision in a counsel’s authorities beyond the principles of Stare Decisis as they apply in Canada. As a result, all court decisions, taken from a court’s own website, from CanLII or of course from a law report can be cited in court when relevant. Since decisions’ paragraphs are numbered, pin-point references are available. Today, counsels mix references to law reports and to CanLII in the authorities they submit to a court, and judges do the same in preparing their reasons for judgment (See Fig. 2).

Fig 2: Use of citations to CanLII (based on neutral citation) in a decision from the Ontario of Court of Appeal, 2015 ONCA 495 (CanLII)

The outlook is similar for Australia. Today, clearly, AustLII is the main outlet for case law in Australia. It must be recognized that the principals at AustLII were the first to establish almost country-wide comprehensive free access in 1997. It took four more years to reach that stage in Canada. Cornell’s LII demonstrated how the law can be published for free, but it is AustLII’s team that showed how this model can be expanded to its full-scale.

Several other legal information institutes are now well-established and would call for a more complete description. Unfortunately, such a description goes far beyond what is possible to do in a short blog post. SafLII and AfricanLII are superb achievements in improving access to legal information in Africa, and both are developing the legal information institute approach in conditions difficult to imagine for a Canadian living in Montreal. PacLII is doing similar work to serve the needs of some twenty developing countries in the South Pacific. BaiLII, the British and Irish Legal Information Institute, would also merit being more fully described here, for its very small team is maintaining a good offering with very limited resources. CyLAW, established in collaboration with the Cyprus Bar Association is illustration of competence and institutional viability in a smaller state. Other extremely valuable initiatives can be found on the Free Access to Law Movement web site.

To sum up, the pioneer work done at Cornell 25 years ago led to the establishment of viable, efficient free access to law resources in several countries, especially countries belonging to the common law tradition. However, the full–fledged internationale of LIIs has never materialized. Many factors can contribute to explaining that. First, in countries of the continental law tradition, case law plays a less central role as a source of law, the publication of legislative material is often taken in charge by the legislative authority (which is not a bad thing), and doctrinal comments and treaties play a much larger role. Altogether these differences have made the development of a LII more challenging. Second, most of the LIIs which reached sustainability started in universities; many are still attached to academia. One must admit that such academic ventures are more valued (or face less prejudice) in North America and Australia than, let’s say, in France. Third, Martin and Bruce were — and still are — “entrepreneurs”. They were doing whatever was needed to finance their LII (consulting for government bodies or the industry was not out of question), they were taking risks and they were persevering. The principals at AustLII, SafLII and Lexum were venturers too (even swashbucklers for some). Some deans could have been less understanding in accepting the activism required to maintain an LII. A related and final ingredient required for survival and growth was the capacity to obtain the required financial support. In this regard, all of us in developed countries were privileged. In the developing world, international development organizations supported some LIIs for a limited time but the end of their funding brought many free legal information concerns to shut down their servers.

The Future

The next question is to try to figure where all this is going: the LII at Cornell, the other LIIs, the Free Access to Law Movement. Divination is not my specialty, but I will try to single out some of the results of the last 25 years that appear to be more durable and mix them with observable trends today which may contribute to determining the future of the free access to law idea.

The very first thing to say is that governments and courts are much more present and active than before. For instance, in all Canadian jurisdictions, statutes and regulations are freely accessible on the web and most courts and tribunals publish their decisions on their web site. Commercial legal publishing has gone through a major transformation over the last twenty years: most publishers specializing in case law reports have disappeared or been acquired by bigger competitors. The survivors linked to major global publishing groups are bundling all they have, such as jurisprudence and various doctrinal writings, case law and legislation, and they offer integrated information products by practice domain. This kind of offering finds takers and business seem to be good. Finally, free access to law seems to have found its footing. CanLII’s funding is provided by the legal professions which obtain through CanLII a national common legal library serving their missions to ensure the competence of their members and to serve the public.

To conclude, let’s say that free access to law is possible and sustainable. Capture and control of official legal information by private interests is avoidable. The well-established nation-wide systems in Canada and Australia, to name only these two jurisdictions, demonstrate that trustworthy, efficient publishing of law is compatible with public domain status and that public legal information can be made accessible for free.

Technical standards are key. The adoption of neutral citation and related policies by the courts played a significant role in ensuring that country-wide free access to law publishers, such as CanLII and AustLII, achieved their potential. More standardization would help deliver even more benefits.

Funding and benefits can be linked. Canada with its communist public health system is sometimes perceived as a middle-of-the-road society; not squarely socialist like those small countries in Northern Europe, but not entirely liberal either. Then, go figure, CanLII is privately funded by the legal professions and operated under contract by a for-profit company, Lexum. The reason private interests can serve a social mission is that those who pay are those who get the most out of the benefits. The business of the for-profit company is to help make the law accessible, not only as a service provider to CanLII, but also through all the other products it sells.

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Since inception, Cornell’s LII has favored quality over quantity. LII’s siblings, Lexum (then CanLII), AustLII and BaiLII, and later on PacLII and SafLII, have gone for volume, to make a difference in access to law in their respective countries. This is not to minimize the practical significance of Cornell’s LII: it has made a difference too, but not the same way. Instead of trying to offer comprehensive access to USA law, which would have been an overwhelming objective, the principals at the LII decided to put their talent into achieving excellence within the more defined boundaries of specific collections, such as the US Supreme Court decisions, the US Code and now the Code of Federal Regulations. These are not tiny corpuses. All are significant bodies of law heavily used not only in the US but abroad as well. Even though other legal information initiatives produced innovations, none aside from Cornell’s LII put knowledge development as the central product of their activities. Even 25 years after starting, LII is still on the edge, figuring how to accelerate the development of a legal semantic web. Beyond the fact that they were the first LII, this constant contribution to knowledge may be the real reason for the ongoing influence and prestige of the institute established 25 years ago by Peter and Tom.  

Twenty years later, the model initiated at Cornell has flourished. Members of the LII family have found their own ways. Looking at the global picture, one can only be pleased to see how an idea born in academia, and in large part at Cornell Law School, has influenced many legal information systems for the better. Even more surprising, it seems that we have not yet seen the end of it. The Cornell LII remains, after all these years, a hotbed of innovation with friends all around the world.

Bon anniversaire et amitiés au LII de la part de nous tous chez Lexum,

Daniel Poulin is the founding director of CanLII, the Canadian Legal Information Institute.  He is widely known for innovation in both legal publishing and in the business apparatus needed to sustain open-access efforts over the long term. He is now Emeritus Professor of the Law Faculty of the University of Montreal, and President of Lexum Information Juridique, a legal-information technology company spun off from his original research group at the University of Montreal.

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