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Law via the Internet: from access to accessibility

Law via the Internet: from access to accessibility

Posted by masoud | 08 December 2015

I attended the Law via the Internet conference in Sydney last month, as I have done a number of times since 2008.  This has always been an interesting conference to attend due to the sheer enthusiasm and dedication of those involved in the Free Access to Law Movement, including all Legal Information Institutes (LIIs).  It has also been fascinating to observe the changes that the LIIs have gone through over the years, and how their emphasis has evolved.

The theme which ran through the conference program and presentations this time was: First came digitisation, we then had open access, and now we should focus on a ‘plain language’ layer over the information.  This layer is meant to provide a way of finding the best answers in the most intuitive way as opposed to offering a purely mechanical search and retrieval engine.  There is no question that the underlying data is vital in any enquiry service, and many LIIs have been busy assembling, acquiring and compiling more legal information documents to add to their services.  But as technology improves and becomes more accessible, and as the users of such services get used to the rapid advances in commercial services – for personal and professional use – the emphasis has to change.

The LIIs have responded, and there were plenty of evidence on show at the conference.  The initiatives which I found particularly compelling were:

CanLII Connects

It is now generally accepted that the raw primary material is essential but not enough.  As more and more content is added to online services we need to find better and more efficient ways of accessing and using these growing data collections.  Adding commentaries and analysis would be ideal, but that is what traditional publishers have been producing, i.e. expensive for them and expensive for the users.

CanLII Connects attempts to add this extra layer of value by involving scholars and others with professional competency to contribute, to share and to help each other, and given time and encouragement they will create a much better tool.

CanLII’s aim is to “make it faster and easier for legal professionals and the public to access high-quality legal commentary on Canadian court decisions.”
AustLII Communities

Making data more accessible and usable has also kept the AustLII team busy, and they have taken a multi-purpose approach to developing and creating community generated content.  Their focus has been on engaging with potential contributors to develop practical guides to the law, such as producing and/or maintaining law handbooks.

They have also been working with legal scholars to create a legal history community and potentially source a large collection of content to add to their existing databases of legal scholarships and law journals.

Engaging a group of users in content creation and contribution is a difficult task, but as with CanLII Connects the AustLII Communities service has achieved successful results by providing the contributors with the necessary authoring and annotation tools.


Data Analysis

The LII team at Cornell University have been working on a machine-learning technique to extract information from a large collection of data, and ultimately use the results for document classification.  This is another example of adding value to raw, primary legal information documents without the heavy costs associated with traditional methods.

As the presenters explained, the results were not accurate enough to be acceptable, but the attempt shows how important technology is and will continue to be in making large data collections usable.

It was interesting to see these presentations and other similar efforts because they resonate with the thought processes and developments that we at Justis Publishing have gone through in the last three or four years.  We too have amassed a very large collection of judgements from the UK, Australia and Canada, but we weren’t satisfied with just a document search service.  We have successfully developed a tool to classify all the judgments, and introduced a range of data analysis features which highlight exciting new perspectives – all of which we have built into our latest platform JustisOne.

Legal information publishing is at an inflection point.  All online services, whether free at the point of use or chargeable, have to invest in new dissemination methods.  These investments can be in a number of models, as demonstrated by Justis and some of the Legal Information Institutes, but they are essential in dealing with the ever increasing expectations from all stakeholders in the industry.


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