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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.

[Note:  the second post in our “25 for 25” series is from Peter W. Martin, the LII’s founding co-director,  and former dean of the Cornell Law School.  Peter is, as well, a pioneer in the use of computers in law teaching, where he was the first to teach for-credit distance-learning courses (in copyright and Social Security law) across multiple institutions — another, less well known, LII first.  He is also the author of the immensely popular online guide, “An Introduction to Basic Legal Citation“.]

Tom Bruce has explained how he secured the Sun computer that launched our Internet escapades. I’ve been charged with adding further detail to the LII’s origin story.

Honesty compels a confession of how unclear we were at the outset about the role the Internet would play in our collaborative enterprise, but my files do contain notes on a January 1992 talk heralding the publication potential of the Internet. The venue was the annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools; the presenter, Mitch Kapor, then chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Three previous years spent designing and building an electronic reference work on Social Security law had persuaded me that:

  • law publishers were not reliable partners for such novel endeavors;
  • hypertext (not present in either Westlaw or Lexis at the time) had enormous value when applied to legal materials;
  • electronic media had the potential to erode barriers that had limited law schools to the role of consumers of information products; and
  • a zone of digital innovation could be established within a U.S. law school with only modest amounts of external funding.

A New York non-profit, the National Center for Automated Information Retrieval or NCAIR, spending down funds generated by the establishment of LEXIS, had supported my Social Security project. In April 1992, with the endorsement of Dean Russell Osgood, Tom and I submitted a proposal to NCAIR seeking a handsome sum for establishment “of an institute of legal information technologies” at Cornell. At NCAIR’s request, we scaled back our multi-year proposal and asked only for start-up funds. Critically, those included salary monies to buy Tom freedom from his duties as the school’s director of educational technologies. Upon securing that funding, we declared ourselves co-directors of an institute – coining a name that has stuck for 25 years and has, as Tom notes, been taken on by many others.

The two labels proved to be startlingly important. To the external world “institute” suggested significant scale and permanence. Within the academic environment that surrounded us – where boundaries of academic discipline and status framed most activity – “co-directors” expressed a partnership that straddled both, making possible the most exhilarating and fulfilling collaboration of my career.

The agenda we sketched for NCAIR included disk publication of important U.S. statutes (electronic course supplements) and experimentation with use of the Internet as a mode of electronic publication and exchange. Unquestionably, we did not anticipate the pace, scope, or longevity of those experiments. Much of what followed was a consequence of fortuitous timing. Looking back, one can see that by 1992 several critical factors had aligned.

First, thanks to LEXIS and Westlaw, U.S. legal insiders (lawyers, judges, legislators, and participants in legal education) had grown familiar with computer-based legal information.

Second, the bodies from which legal texts emerge – courts, legislatures, administrative agencies – had begun using computers in drafting and revision. Most continued to consider the resulting word processing files simply a more efficient means of producing print, but some offered journalists, lawyers, and interested others dial-up access to the digital originals. In 1990 the US Supreme Court took a further step, distributing its judgments electronically on the morning of release to a small number of redistributors. A dozen or so media companies and law publishers subscribed. But so, too, did one university, Case Western Reserve, placing the decision files on the Internet at an ftp site. This was a far cry from effective public access. To retrieve the syllabus and opinions in a specific case one had to have a dial-up connection to the Case Western site or be part of the scientific community then connected to the Internet. One also needed to know the docket number, download multiple files, and have compatible word-processing software.

Nonetheless, the availability of primary legal texts in digital format straight from the source and unencumbered by copyright (another favorable factor) spared electronic publishers, including upstarts like us, the cost of digitizing print – a huge expense burdening early legal database research and LEXIS and Westlaw during their first decades. Together with the spread of PCs and the emergence of CD-ROM as a high-capacity distribution medium, this opened the U.S. legal information market to a disruptive wave of fresh competition.

Disk distribution offered important functionality, including hypertext and copy and paste, that the major online systems did not then deliver. Software exploiting this potential had appeared by the early 1990s. By 1992 work was underway to bring the best of them to a scrollable graphical user interface, capable of displaying and printing legal documents with all the information carried in print by font size, style, graphics, and layout. This development was in turn made possible by Microsoft’s release, only a year and a half before, of Windows 3.0.

Neither the major legal information vendors nor U.S. public bodies responded nimbly to the opportunities opened by disk distribution or the Internet. And that created space for our uninhibited, experimental non-profit.

We ventured into that space during the summer of 1992, with a handful of disk publications and the Gopher server Tom has described. Gopher could not, however, deliver important features we had been able to realize in the LII disk publications. It was a desire to bring the quality we had achieved on disk to the Internet that led us to html and the Web in early 1993. Way back then, the Web, also in its infancy, was the tool of a technical community that worked on UNIX machines that had high bandwidth connections to the Internet. Our principal audience as we then conceived it consisted of legal insiders working with PCs and dial-up connections. For them no Web browser existed nor was one in sight. So Tom set to work and created the first Windows-based Web browser, Cello.

By then the infrastructure that would allow the explosion of the World Wide Web was in place. The capacity and speed of the Internet’s backbone had just been dramatically improved. Congress had removed the ban on commercial traffic over that backbone imposed by NSF’s “acceptable use policy,” and privatization was underway.

These developments put distribution of legal information to a broader public within reach, but only those who were aware of and had access to the Net. In 1992 and 1993 that was a small population. During 1992 the word “Internet” appeared in only twenty-two New York Times articles and not once in the American Bar Association Journal. In December 1993, when the product “Internet in a box” was announced, estimates of Internet users had climbed into the 15-20 million range (a ten-fold increase over the course of only a year or two). By then the LII was an established Web destination, and Tom and I had begun to appreciate that the public that valued our growing collection of legal information was far broader than the set of legal insiders we initially had in mind.

As early as 1995 all the ingredients that enabled our initial experiment to germinate, grow, and reach a global audience had come together. Although the LII enjoyed significant first mover advantage, the period since then has been filled with repeated challenges and hard choices – as public bodies, commercial entities with business plans that incorporated public access to legal information, new search engines and other finding aids crowded into the sector the LII once shared with only a few others. Casualties furnished a steady reminder that in this rapidly changing environment, survival, let alone impact, could not be taken for granted. Long gone, for example, are the fine treaty collection hosted by the University of Tromsø, the index to federal agency material offered by Villanova, and Indiana’s law meta list. In some cases disappearance was the result of being displaced by something better, in others of having attempted too much, and still others of shifts in allegiance or priorities of key personnel or the host institution.

Successfully threading a path through these and other obstacles, the LII has had to address a set of critical and recurring questions, concerning:

  • the institute’s relationship with Cornell;
  • whether to work in consort with any of the increasingly numerous commercial and public players in this field, and if so on what terms;
  • how to staff, organize, and fund expansion in scale and longevity beyond the initial experiment; and
  • how to continue to innovate while maintaining the information services essential to holding and growing the LII’s audience.

As the years have gone by, these questions have not grown less difficult. In the 13 years since retirement removed me from the founding partnership, Tom and his team have addressed them with such success that I have high confidence that this venture, begun so long ago, will continue to break fresh ground, while meeting important public needs, long past this 25th anniversary.

Peter W. Martin, the Jane M.G. Foster Professor of Law, Emeritus, at Cornell, co-founded the Legal Information Institute with Thomas R. Bruce and served as its co-director until 2003.

Raise your hand if you’ve heard (or said) a variation of one of these tired truisms: “Politics is dominated by lobbyists and spending.” “Policy making has degenerated into a glorified yelling match.” “Our country has never been more polarized.” “Today’s online communities foster echo chambers of the like-minded rather than fora for discussion.”

Is your hand raised? Because ours certainly are.

The only thing anyone can seem to agree on today is that the current U.S. political system is broken. We’re mired in a confluence of corporate spending, ugly discourse, and voter voicelessness.

LexPop provides an open public platform for tackling these problems.

Meet LexPop

LexPop allows participants to collaborate in the creation of legislative bills — bills that are later introduced by actual legislators. At its most basic, LexPop is a Wikipedia for creating public policy. (There’s a lot more to it than that, as we’ll explain below.) In our first project, Massachusetts Representative Tom Sannicandro (D-Ashland) — one of those actual legislators we’re talking about — has agreed to introduce a net neutrality bill created on LexPop.

LexPop has two primary goals. Our first goal is to give the public a voice. We hope to provide a space for ordinary people (i.e., people who can’t afford to hire lobbyists) to contribute substantively to public policy — to give their best ideas a fair hearing.

As you know, lobbyists write the bulk of the legislation coming out of our various legislatures. LexPop provides a voxlobbylane.jpgcounterpoint to the current model — a way for the public to provide legislators with voter-created model legislation. A legitimate, 21st-century democracy will invite the public into meaningful collaboration, and LexPop is part of the march in that direction.

Our second goal is to determine the best way to achieve the first. That is, a compelling movement is attempting to take governance into the 21st century, and organizations like PopVox and OpenCongress are doing great work. Several organizations and initiatives, including a government-sponsored effort in Brazil, are trying to make it possible for citizens to help write legislation. But at this point, nobody knows the best way to make the co-creation of laws a reality. Our work will contribute to figuring out what’s possible, what works, and what doesn’t.

How LexPop works

There are two ways to use LexPop. Our primary focus is on Policy Drives — where legislators pledge to introduce bills written on the site. Policy Drives are somewhat analogous to what goes on at Wikipedia, but LexPop provides more structure through the use of three specific phases:

  • Phase 1: Initial discussion, debate, argument, and research;
  • Phase 2: Outlining the bill in plain English (for those who aren’t regular readers of Vox PopuLII); and
  • Phase 3: Transforming the ‘plain English’ outline into legislative text.

voxnet-neutrality.jpgWe’re currently in the discussion phase of our first Policy Drive, devoted to the net neutrality bill Rep. Sannicandro has agreed to introduce.

A second option on LexPop is working on a “WikiBill.” WikiBills are written via the familiar, wide-open wiki model, and they offer a spot for the public to create model legislation on their own, without the three-phase structure of Policy Drives, and without a legislator-sponsor. WikiBill creators collaborate through a free-for-all process, very similar to Wikipedia — start from scratch and cobble the bill together. There’s no end to the WikiBill process, so participants can create a bill, submit it to their representatives, modify it, and submit it again.

Yeah, sounds great. But can this really work?

It’s usually at this point in the conversation that questions start coming up. LexPop, and similar projects, are largely operating in uncharted waters, and so there’s good reason to think the project sounds ambitious, perhaps even crazy. Below are a few of the questions we’re asked most often, along with our preliminary answers.

Will anyone contribute to this sort of effort?
We think so. (Obviously.)

Here’s why: Ordinary people collaborate on difficult projects online — especially online — often with great success. Take Linux, the open source operating system. The vast majority of people who work on Linux aren’t paid; they’ve incrementally created it in their spare time.

Are you reading this blog on Firefox? Well, guess what? Your browser was built almost entirely by volunteers.

At LexPop, we’re asking people who are passionate about certain issues to give some of their free time to developing better policy, in the same way engineers have asked them to help develop software. Sure, it will be complicated, but people are smart, and given the right opportunity and tools, they’ll be able to (once again) create something extraordinary.

Politics is too controversial — How can you expect people to come to consensus on one answer?
To answer this question, we like to look to Jesus — the “Jesus” page on Wikipedia, that is.

There are plenty of controversial topics addressed on Wikipedia, but it’s the pages for these topics that are often the most accurate. Wikipedians who edit the Jesus page know the topic is controversial, so they back up what they say with facts — otherwise, the crowd of users won’t allow it. Over time, the Jesus page has turned into something that most users are pretty happy about. And this is the similarity between LexPop and Wikipedia: They’re both about collaboratively writing something that isn’t perfect in the eyes of any one participant, but is better than the alternative.

Fine, but isn’t there a better model than a wiki?
This is one of the things we’re trying to figure out, and one of the things with which we need your help. We’re starting with a modified wiki (the three phases), but as we learn, we’ll adapt. A wiki allows a certain type of collaboration (the kind found on Wikipedia), but it may not be the best way to collaborate. Is the three-step process we’re using the right model, or should the phases be combined? With your help, we’ll find out — and we promise to share our findings.

Will legislation created on LexPop be representative?
We don’t claim that bills made on LexPop will be perfectly representative, and we’re not trying to make representative democracy obsolete. After a bill is written on the site, it will still have to go through the same bill-into-law process as every other piece of legislation.

voxexperts.jpgBut LexPop will certainly be more representative than the system we have now. With LexPop, non-profit organizations with valuable knowledge of an issue, passionate experts well-versed on a topic, and regular voters (Joes the Plumber, if you will) will no longer be shut out of the process. Right now, we live in a world where participation too often means a voter pours out her heart in a letter and receives a form response that the intended recipient didn’t write, read, or even sign. Our system for adding more voices to lawmaking may not be perfect, but it will be less imperfect than the current political system.

LexPop provides a first draft of legislation that’s written by people, not by lobbyists. This is our value-add; we’re opening a new channel for public participation, and taking a step toward a more legitimate and deliberative democracy.

But we need your helpvoxmeeting_brains.jpg

And we need it big time. For a project like this to work, we need participants.

If you’re interested in collaborative democracy, please get involved in the conversation. You’ll be helping even if you post only one comment. Even if you aren’t particularly interested in net neutrality, we encourage you to learn more about it on the site, and then make sure you come back when we have a Policy Drive on your favorite issue.

Also, we’d be grateful if you spread the word about our site. Like us on Facebook, Tweet about LexPop (@LexPopOrg), blog about us, or, even better, let us write a guest blog post on your site (Thanks, VoxPopuLII !).

We’d also love for you to tell us what we’re doing wrong. LexPop is perfect in neither theory nor practice. So please help us make LexPop and, ultimately, deliberative democracy better with your feedback. We have a Google Group for discussion about LexPop, or you can contact us through the website.

Coda

LexPop is a platform for public engagement and empowerment. LexPop provides a space for discussion-driven public policy and a stronger, more agile democracy. LexPop is about more voices. Add yours.

Matt_BacaMatt Baca is a joint J.D./M.P.A. student at New York University School of Law and the Harvard Kennedy School. He’s interested law, public policy, government 2.0, and the Rockies (team and mountains).

Olin_Grant_ParkerOlin Parker is a Master’s in Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School. His interests include disability policy, education reform, the states of Kansas and Louisiana, and his 17 month-old daughter.

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

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.