This book chapter describes and analyses the global development of free access to legal information since the mid-1990s, and particularly the group of ‘Legal Information Institutes’ (LIIs) that make up the Free Access to Law Movement.
From the mid-1990s the world-wide-web provided the necessary technical platform to enable free public access to computerised legal information – a low cost distribution mechanism. In many countries the first attempts to exploit the advantages of the web for providing legal information came from the academic sector rather than government, and did so with an explicit ideology of free access provision. The first group of such organisations became known collectively as ‘legal information institutes’ or ‘LIIs’. Two distinguishing characteristic of the ‘LIIs’ are that (i) they publish legal information from more than one source (not just ‘their own’ information), for free access via the Internet, and (ii) they collaborate with each other through membership of the ‘Free Access to Law Movement'.
Most but not all share three other characteristics. They collaborate through data sharing networks or portals, and also technical networks for back-up security purposes. Most are independent of government, though this is diminishing as a distinguishing feature. The majority use one of two open source search engines: the Sino search engine developed by AustLII and the Lucene search engine utilised by LexUM in the development of various LIIs.
Three LIIs played key roles in early developments: the Legal Information Institute (Cornell), AustLII, and LexUM. They each developed from research projects on various aspects of legal automation going back to the 1980s, and were ready to capitalise on the world-wide-web’s sudden emergence into public prominence around 1994. Their roles are explained.
From 2000 AustLII started to use its search engine and other software to assist organisations in other countries, initially limited to those with academic roots, to establish LIIs with similar functionality. AustLII helped to establish between 2000-04 servers and databases for six LIIs (BAILII, PacLII, HKLII, SAFLII, CyLaw and NZLII). It operated the servers for a period on behalf of its local partners, with progressive local take-over of operations. Responsibility for obtaining and developing legal data was usually undertaken by the local partner from the outset. Each of these LIIs is described. Having established CanLII, LexUM used the tools it had developed to create, with local partners, Droit Francophone (2003), JuriBurkina (2003) and JuriNiger (2007).
The Free Access to Law Movement (FALM), established in 2002, is a loose affiliation of 33 legal information institutes as of March 2010. The ‘Law via Internet’ Conferences have since 1997 been the principal means by which this cooperation was established. The Declaration on Free Access to Law (2002) sets out FALM’s aims as ‘the primary role of local initiatives in free access publishing of their own national legal information’ and secondly that ‘All legal information institutes are encouraged to participate in regional or global free access to law networks’.
The development of multi-LII portals since 2002 is described, particularly WorldLII, CommonLII and AsianLII, plus the LawCite citator, operated by AustLII in cooperation with twelve other LIIs. The Global Legal Information Network (GLIN), operated by the US Library of Congress, and by LexUM’s development of Droit Francophone, are also described. The number of databases provided by all of the LIIs of the Free Access to Law Movement has been growing rapidly ever since 2002, and amounted to 1190 databases in 2009.
Different models for networking free access LIIs are discussed. The LII networks provided through WorldLII, CommonLII and AsianLII primarily utilise a replication / synchronisation model, and differences within FALM on this strategy, compared with ‘federated searching’, are outlined. Various other policy differences within FALM are also discussed.
The extent to which FALM is global is analysed, including the role that ‘government LIIs’ can play in FALM. It is clear that there is far more free access to law than is provided by the current members of the Free Access to Law Movement. The geographical scope of FALM membership is nevertheless as yet far more limited than the spread of free access to law as an idea and a reality, being concentrated on the Anglophone and Commonwealth countries, some parts of the francophonie, and parts of Asia. This is a challenge for a movement which is potentially global, but also indicates that the Free Access to Law Movement and the development of LIIs may yet be far from reaching its maximum impact. The extent of free access outside FALM is outlined.
Reasons why impediments to full free access to law are decreasing are outlined, particularly in relation to copyright law and access to data. The extent to which FALM members have established standards for citations are discussed.
The most concerted discussion of some of the principles in the Declaration on Free Access to Law, and further development of them, took place at an expert meeting called by the Hague Conference on Private Law in 2008, resulting in 18 draft Principles on desirable conduct of States in relation to free access to legal information. The relationship between LIIs and Internet search engines like Google, and why most LIIs block search engines from indexing their case law, are also discussed.
Cyberspace Law | Intellectual Property | Legal Writing and Research
Date of this Version
Graham Greenleaf, "Free Access to Legal Information, LIIs, and the Free Access to Law Movement" (October 2011). University of New South Wales Faculty of Law Research Series 2011. Working Paper 43.