While open and free access to American judicial opinions has progressed substantially over the last few years, very little attention has been given to the state of access to administrative legal information. Maybe Tom Bruce did not ask kindly enough in 2013 when he wrote “Dear Federal Agencies … put your goddamned ALJ Opinions Up” in this post. In any case, three years later, the situation is still more or less the same: administrative decisions rendered by both ALJs and agencies are not systematically available online, and when they are it can be extremely difficult for third parties to automatically agglomerate them for reuse. This situation prevails at both the federal and state levels.
This context explains my enthusiasm for the new decision search engine recently deployed by the Washington Public Employment Relations Commission (Washington PERC) with the help of Decisia by Lexum. The Washington PERC is the Washington State agency with jurisdiction over public sector labor relations and collective bargaining in Washington. Like many agencies it renders several types of decisions, which were previously scattered over different sections of its website – some with search capabilities and some without – making them difficult to discover. Understanding that providing useful access to its decisions is part of its mandate, and that online access is the only thing that really counts today, the Washington PERC decided to invest some resources (a very reasonable amount in fact) in enhancing the usability of its online decisions.
The new Washington PERC decisions website complies with many of the best practices recognized for decision publishing:
- Self-publishing of full text decisions
The staff at the Washington PERC has full control over the content of its decisions website via a web-based interface. Publishing is not relinquished to any third-party commercial publisher that could require some kind of exclusivity in exchange for its input. It enables online publishing of the most authoritative version of the full text of decisions.
Since the agency is in complete control of the publishing process, it can make its decisions available to its stakeholders as soon as they are rendered. Any error in the body of a decision can be fixed in a matter of minutes by the registry clerks.
The Washington PERC has invested effort in making sure that all of the decisions it has rendered since the mid-‘70s are available on its website, turning it into an historical repository. Thus, serious legal research can be undertaken from the new website without any fear of missing part of the material.
The technology used for the Washington PERC decisions website is designed to facilitate access for individuals with disabilities by being compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level AA of the World Wide Web organization.
- Provision of both HTML and PDF versions
Decisions are provided in both HTML and PDF formats. The HTML version enables the provision of advanced search functionalities and highlighting of search hits in the body of decisions. The PDF version preserves the appearance of the original file (a scan copy of the signed version is provided whenever available) and facilitates printing.
The Washington PERC decisions website can be browsed (or crawled) by decision date or decision title and its URL structure is SEO-friendly. This makes the content “discoverable” by both human researchers and web robots operated by third parties interested in reusing the data. On top of that Decisia also features a RSS feed of recently published material and an API providing a machine readable version of all content.
- Full-text searchable
A powerful search engine supporting Boolean queries, proximity operators and wildcards enables users to undertake advanced searches in the complete body of all decisions. Users also benefit from an auto-completion feature providing quick access links to exact matches and a spell-checker that proposes alternative queries in case of typos or errors.
- Multi-criteria search tools
Advanced database search is also facilitated by the availability of eight additional fields that can be queried individually or in conjunction (decision number, date, parties, decision-maker, case type, appeal status, statute and collection).
- Citation availability
Finally, each decision is provided with a unique medium neutral citation by the agency itself, for example “Decision 12563-A (PECB, 2016)”. This type of citation enables the identification of individual decisions without referring to any specific publisher.
In the end, all of this should provide positive outcomes on two distinct fronts:
- Enhanced access for those directly affected by Washington PERC decisions
Washington State union members, employers and their representatives will undoubtedly be the first to benefit from this enhanced access to decisions on public sector labor relations and collective bargaining. Without a doubt, making it easier to find how previous conflicts were resolved significantly contributes to Washington PERC’s mandate of assisting parties in resolving labor-management disputes.
- Consolidation of the field of law under the jurisdiction of the Washington PERC
Whether Washington PERC decisions are considered to be precedential or not, the fact remains that they are the only sources of information about past conflicts resolved in this niche area of law. By making sure this information is available in a format useable by all, the Agency is contributing to the development of the legal field in which it operates while at the same time promoting its competence as a decision-making body. As a consequence, the authoritative status of its decisions is bound to be enhanced over time.
Considering the overall state of online access to administrative decisions, one can only hope that this example will inspire other agencies and ALJs to follow suite and implement adequate decisions websites. The Washington PERC is only one agency within one state, but its latest initiative at least has the merit of demonstrating how easy it can be to publish administrative decisions the right way.
Pierre-Paul Lemyre is the Director of Business Development for Lexum, Inc., a legal informatics company in Montreal. Lexum provides the technology and publishing infrastructure for CanLII, the Canadian Legal Information Institute.