By all accounts, it has been a gloomy year for access to justice. The legal aid budget is to be reduced by £350m and state assistance has effectively disappeared in non-criminal cases. The overall justice budget, which is already low by international standards, is to be cut by a further 23%. But believe it or not, there may be reasons to be cheerful.
In the virtual world, legal blogs are becoming an established voice in the UK legal community and the flourishing blogosphere has given the public a lively, accessible and most importantly free new way of engaging with the law. With legal aid becoming scarcer and Citizens Advice Bureaus losing their funding, free information services such can be the last resort for those who seek legal help without having to pay for a lawyer.
But none of these services would exist without their hidden backbone: BAILII. To that end, when Legal Week published its excellent review of legal blogging last month, the failure to mention BAILII caused a min-revolution from a gaggle of legal bloggers in the comments section.
BAILII’s unassuming website looks like it has barely changed since its launch in March 2000. But its basic text-driven interface belies an elegant search engine providing access to an enormous wealth of case law and legislation. In a common law system such as ours, the decisions of judges form the law of the land. Amazingly, without BAILII, nobody without an expensive subscription service would be able to read the case law which shapes the UK justice system,
The website is part of the World Legal Information Institute, which runs similar free services around the world, and the Free Access to Law Movement, which was launched in 1992 to encourage free online access to legal information.
To understand its impact on the UK legal community, one need only look at the figures. Since its launch just over a decade ago, BAILII’s database has grown to include over 280,000 searchable documents, a 29 gigabyte database (for the non-techies: that is huge), 32,275 individual users per week and close to a million weekly page requests. It is not an understatement to say that practically every lawyer in the UK uses the service at some point during their working week.
BAILII, a charitable trust, runs with only two full-time and one part-time members of staff. I asked Joe Ury, the BAILII chief executive, what the challenges are of running the service. He emphasised that many users fail to understand that BAILII is just a small charity, not part of the government or court system. And many do not even realise that they use BAILII; but the online resource they depend on – such as a legal blog – itself depends on links to BAILII’s case reports.
Ury pointed out other challenges to the service. There is a “drift to publishing judgments as PDF files” which are “dead documents” and take a huge amount of time to convert to web documents. His “pet peeve” is the use of incorrect citations as this small error can make the document impossible to find in the database.
But of course, the biggest challenge to BAILII is funding. ”Like most organisations in these financially hard times” says Ury, “at the moment we are trying to raise money for next year – full stop.” With more funding, BAILII could clean up its entire database and “arrange for all significant judgments, within our geographical area if interest, throughout history to be published for free access on BAILII“. As Ury points out, “the public purse paid for the judgments to be created in the first place” so “the public should have free access to the judgments that exist in written form“.
Without BAILII, we would be left with expensive proprietary services such as Westlaw and LexisNexis, which are already a luxury for law firms and certainly not affordable to the person on the street. It is also no understatement to say that if BAILII ceased to exist, so would the legal blogs and other free-to-access commentary services.
But what about the government? It could be argued that access to legal information is as basic a right as access to running water, and therefore should be funded by the state. In fact, the state is getting slightly better at this, as evidenced by the Supreme Court’s innovative system of publishing judgments and informative press summaries on its new website. But times are tight at the Ministry of Justice and it is hard to imagine such a service being expanded to the lower courts, especially when BAILII is doing a good job anyway.
Arguably, the enlightened view is that a better informed public would approach the justice system more responsibly, which is the stated intention of the MoJ reform program. And legal blogs, which only exist because of free online case law, are perfect examples of the Big Society in action. But perhaps it is best for the government to concentrate on improving the court system rather than online justice, given its inconsistent record on IT projects and the fact that its flash new legislation website only promises to be up to date after 2002.
Of course, do-it-yourself justice is no replacement for legal professionals. Legal disputes are often of central importance to people’s lives, and it is sometimes impossible to achieve the right result without recourse to professionals, no matter how much a lay-person may learn about the law surrounding their specific case. But making legal information easily accessible to professionals and the public makes the justice system more friendly and less frightening.
So, BAILII is likely to remain justice’s hidden backbone. And as its chief executive stressed, ”if a quarter of our weekly users sent us £5 each year we’d make up what looks like our current yearly short fall into the future.” You can donate online by clicking here.
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