Access to Law Online: Ten of the best free resources – Judith Townend

17 08 2011

It’s the norm to pay for legal information, through legal databases (eg. LexisNexis, Westlaw, HeinOnline) and paid for services (eg. Courtserve).  But there is a strong case for improving the Ministry of Justice’s handling of courts data and judicial information and opening information to all.  As I have argued before, the closed and costly nature of courts data is restricting legal research and analysis – as well as public access to legal information.

If it is to achieve the government’s goals for open data, the MoJ needs to sharpen up its act and end data monopolies that restrict the use of particular legal data sets to a single organisation.  But it’s not a completely bleak landscape. There are a number of excellent resources outside the legal paywalls.

I have put together a list of ten of the best, albeit with the inevitable disclaimer that my choices are subjective and related to my research interest in privacy and defamation law. Please share your own recommendations in the comments below the post.

Anyone interested in discussing the case for open digital justice further can join the Google group at this link.

1.  Bailii. While I do not agree that Bailii should have exclusive rights to court judgment data, the organisation does provide an invaluable service to lawyers, legal researchers and the general public. Numerous legal bloggers are supporting its ongoing appeal for funds.  As Nearly Legal says, “[It] remains astonishing that without Bailii, there would be no free public access to the higher court judgments which form the law, save for the Supreme Court“. The site can’t be searched by Google and its RSS feeds are limited, but it provides an indispensible data store, with cases categorised by court and year.

2.  Supreme Court. Since its creation in 2009, this court has been more accessible to the general public and it has televised some cases. This page offers a table of cases, ordered by Hand-down date, Neutral citation, Case ID or Case name, with PDF summaries and judgments. Another page lists current case names, summaries and details about the stage each case is at.

3.  5RB. It offers commentary and reports on media related cases. Best of all, you can view cases by topic, barrister and year (a judge search option would make this feature even better). More than one option can be selected at a time: this search reveals defamation cases in 2009, beginning with the letter ‘W’.

4.  One Brick Court. Its cases and news pages, with RSS feeds, are extremely useful for tracking media and information law, particularly privacy and defamation.

5.  Out-law.com. An old-timer in online digital resources. Since its birth in 2000, it has built up a solid database with legal explanations and news updates. Its numerous guides cover copyright, cookie law, user-generated content and data protection, as well as many other topics.

6.  UK Human Rights Blog. Founded in 2010, it is still youthfully energetic in its regular updates on human rights law. It publishes a case table and breaks posts down by topic.

7.  Legislation.gov.uk. If only the equivalent existed for case law. Admittedly, as UKHR blog editor (and barrister) Adam Wagner points out here, the site only guarantees up to date legislation until 2002, but it’s an excellent statutory law resource nonetheless, searchable by legislation title, year and number.

8.  Free Legal Web. Founded by Nick Holmes in 2008, the site’s aim is to “join up” the free legal web. It’s currently in beta, with a housing law pilot. Users are encouraged to help classify the existing case law. At the moment, its case search results link to Google, Bailii and LawCite. Its archive of articles are listed here, and categorised by topic. More information about its plans for development and a call for feedback can be found here.

9.  Whatdotheyknow.com. MySociety’s site provides a superb way of tracking FoI requests made to the Ministry of Justice and its agencies (as well as other government departments). It provides a simple way to submit, as well as browse, requests. It helps you administrate your requests, prompting you when a response is made or your submission has been ignored. Best of all, it opens up information acquired by FoI to all.

10.  Electronic Frontier Foundation. The only US-based site on this list, but an important inclusion because it shows the kind of resource that could be developed in the UK. Its special projects include detailed guides to the legal position for bloggers and coders.

Judith Townend is a freelance journalist and PhD researcher examining legal restraints on the media, and also runs the Meeja Law blog. She is @jtownend on Twitter.

Picture: Mandiberg on Flickr.

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9 responses

17 08 2011
Clare

Will be interesting to see what Judgmental http://judgmental.org.uk/ will be like once they have the glitches sorted out.
Also interesting is the ICLR who do free digests of important cases. http://cases.iclr.co.uk/Subscr/Search.aspx
Basically look out for cases on a topic by topic basis – Daniel Barnett for employment, Family law Week for family stuff etc.

17 08 2011
Joe

Interesting article. You say:

“while I do not agree that Bailii should have exclusive rights to court judgment data”

Has anyone ever argued that BAILII should have exclusive rights?

17 08 2011
NL

*cough* Slightly embarrassed to blow our own trumpet. but Nearly Legal (http://nearlylegal.co.uk/blog/) does have pretty much every housing law related judgment since 2008 and the major ones from 2006 – case reports and links to full judgments where possible. Broken down by case type, tenancy type and issues.

17 08 2011
JTownend

Thank you for your comments.

Joe, I don’t know whether anyone has argued for it, but as I understand it, judgment data isn’t available to other publishers in that form. And Bailii’s data can’t be scraped. My info came from Mark Goodge’s FoI request to the Ministry of Justice (http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/73838/response/189463/attach/html/3/FOI%2070820%20Mark%20Goodge%20response%20290611.doc.html)

Q 3: Is the information supplied to BAILII also available to other
publishers on the same basis?

A 3: No, the information is available free of charge via the BAILII website. We have scheduled this requirement to be re-tendered in 2012.

Q 4. 4. If so, what is the process whereby other publishers may obtain
the data? If not, why not?

A 4. See response to question 3

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links for 2011-08-19 « Onlinejournalismtest's Blog

[...] Access to Law Online: Ten of the best free resources – Judith Townend « Inforrm's Blog If it is to achieve the government’s goals for open data, the MoJ needs to sharpen up its act and end data monopolies that restrict the use of particular legal data sets to a single organisation.  But it’s not a completely bleak landscape. There are a number of excellent resources outside the legal paywalls. I have put together a list of ten of the best, albeit with the inevitable disclaimer that my choices are subjective and related to my research interest in privacy and defamation law. Please share your own recommendations in the comments below the post. (tags: law judithtownend data courts) [...]

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