Keeping Track of Freely Available Legal Information

Websites providing free access to legal information have come to play a major role in the day-to-day work of legal practitioners. For a majority of Canadian lawyers legal, research now starts with free access websites and is completed by the use of commercial databases only when required. No wonder that the CanLII website serves between 200,000 and 250,000 unique visitors each month and that it is used by 9 lawyers out of 10. This impact on the profession has been recognized by the judiciary for many years. It has resulted in a growing “trend toward limiting or eliminating allowances for on-line computer research” when assessing costs.

However, if free access legal information providers have achieved their original objective of enabling free access to primary law, the vast majority of them have stopped short of personalizing the experience of their users. The absence of user accounts is the norm and features allowing users to keep track of their research findings over time are scarce. This is curious, considering that current awareness services are much needed by lawyers who search free access databases over and over again. Litigators and other practitioners need to keep their legal research updated over the life span of their cases and files. At the other end of the spectrum, those who have developed a niche practice have no option but to keep up with the latest changes in their respective fields. Commercial legal publishers understand this and designed tools leveraging individual users research history in the hope of securing their recurring business. WestlawNext Canada, for instance, allows the sharing of documents and folders in order to tap into previously completed searches, recommends related content when searching, and offers citation alerts for favourite decisions.

I can think of 3 reasons explaining the lack of personalized current awareness services in free access legal information providers. First, it can be explained by the wording of the Montreal Declaration on Free Access to Law that requires its signatories to “Provide free and anonymous public access to [legal] information”. Personalization requires user accounts and monitoring usage behaviours, practices quite clearly defeating anonymity. The first line of CanLII’s Privacy Policy clearly points in that direction. It states without ambiguity: “CanLII avoids collecting and storing personal information”.

A second reason is that free access legal information providers often lack financial incentives to invest in the development of advanced features designed to facilitate the ongoing reuse of the data they host. For many organizations, whether Legal Information Institutes (LIIs) or public bodies, funding for the dissemination of legal information is tied to the volume of material made available. In this context, it is quite logical that priority is given to expanding coverage. A third explanation may be that these same organizations perceive the personalization of the user experience to be outside of their mandate. It is true that the provision of added value on top of the raw material at their disposal has always been handled by commercial publishers.

Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that keeping track of legal information downloaded from free resources is not an easy task. Some power users manage to setup custom alerts based on RSS feeds. But for the majority of legal researchers, making sure their findings are still up-to-date after a few weeks or months involves starting their legal research from scratch. Considering the central position freely accessible legal information now holds within the legal profession, there is definitely room for improvement.

For the past few months, Lexum has been experimenting with the idea of simplifying how lawyers store, monitor and share online legal information. The features that Lexum is working on will allow you to be notified when new cases matching one of your previous legal research queries are made available online. It will allow you to get citation alerts for case law or version alerts for legislation. It will enable you to centralize the findings of your legal research even if you grabbed results from distinct databases. Ultimately the goal is to make it easy for you to keep track of online legal information, whatever its source, within your own personalized legal research workspace.

If you feel this approach can make a difference in the way you conduct your legal research, we invite you to try Lexbox. Still a prototype, we are now looking for real-world users to try it out and provide feedback. You are most welcome to jump on board with us.