Discussion with Joe Ury of BAILLI

Yesterday, I had an interesting and informative discussion with Joe Ury, Executive Director of the British and Irish Legal Information Institute:
BAILII
BAILII primarily makes legal information available over the web. The search terms are with respect to:

  • Citation
  • Case name
  • Word list (conjunctive)
  • Exact phrase (using ” “)
  • Word list (disjunctive)
  • Dates
  • Advance Query with * (morphological variants), ? (single character wildcard), Boolean operators (and, or, not), proximity operators (/n/ for n terms and near (terms less than or equal to 50 terms)
  • Unit processing with paretheses ( )
  • Jurisdiction

The results can highlight terms in the results.
By and large, these are the same sorts of search capabilities found in commerical legal case base systems.
He drew my attention to the various links for other legal institutes in the world which have a similar agenda of providing free access to the law. A world organisation links to all the available legal databases affiliated with the legal information institutes:
World Legal Information Institute
We discussed issues related to building and using the databases, for there are different issues of ownership in the different jurisdictions. Navigating these issues, addressing concerns, and adjusting to local circumstances are, apparently, a primary reason for the preeminence of commercial vendors. These issues may have to do with who claim copyright, how cases can be excluded, the role of legal professionals (from Supreme Court Justices or Law Lords, to transcribers, to councils on law reporting, to the court system, and on down to law students) in determining access. On the other hand, BAILII is funded by a wide consortium of legal professionals, which would appear to provide defacto support of distribution of legal information. This contrasts with the situation in the US, where the government assigned sole distribution of legal information to commercial vendors, and in this regard, the US has far less available publically (though see the efforts at public.resource.org.
These observations led into a wide-ranging discussion about the role of law in civil society along with the best means to distribute legal information. There are pros and cons on every side.
Private Distribution:

  • Provide value added information such as Head Notes or Abstracts
  • Provide a high level of service
  • Allow widely distributed access
  • Have quality control and assurance
  • Preindex cases to faciliate search

Public Distribution:

  • The public’s interest and right to know the operations of the legal system which governs their lives
  • Free access (so wider distribution)
  • Support for novel searches and applications

There are the interests of a range of stakeholders:

  • Public administrations
  • Judicial and legal professionals
  • The public which is served by the application of the law
  • Private firms with significant assets

Access to the law is not unlike access to other fundamental ‘resources’ where public and private interests mingle and compete.
My own view is that the more public the discussions are about the issues, the more productive the outcome will be for all concerned. For example, private interests certainly provide value added goods and services. However, one might argue that novel private interests could grow out of access to at least basic case decisions and legislation. Allowing access to legal information could, perhaps, make the legal system more transparent and efficient, at least to the extent that this is possible. One analogy Joe and I discussed was that allowing access to medical reports to those who wanted it encouraged a greater participation on the part of those being served by the medical system. Yet, it also exposed medical professionals to greater exposure and liability. In turn, this was followed by changes in how service was delivered. Overall, the medical system adapted and improved.
One point is very clear. The movement for free access to legal information is growing. It will be interesting to see how the various stakeholders adapt, compete, and collaborate over the coming years.

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