Justice’s hidden backbone – a tribute to BAILII

18 November 2010 by

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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  1. Iain Stewart says:

    Joe – My reference was only to credit within the article. BAILII’s own “About” page, of course, states: “The software and approaches that are used on BAILII have been provided with the assistance of AustLII (the Australasian Legal Information Institute). ” BAILII has also cloned AustLII’s modesty.

  2. Joe Ury says:

    First, thanks for the positive comments about BAILII we all find them very encouraging. Just a few points from my standpoint.

    Documents in pdf format can be saved – modified and reconstituted as a pdf document with relative ease – my real point is that pdf doesn’t easily lend itself to producing a web version that can be automatically marked up to include indexes, hyperlinks to judgments cited etc.

    Re AustLII the trustees (which includes Professor Andrew Mowbray who with along Professor Graham Greenleaf created AustLII) and all the BAILII staff give full credit to AustLII – after all one can read in the history if it’s founding that in 1996 AustLII’s management team was comprised of (its Co-Directors and Manager) who were jointly responsible for AustLII’s overall direction, supported by the Management Committee: Robert Watt (UTS), Joe Ury (UNSW) and Alan Tyree (University of Sydney) along with three other academic members. Also not to belabour the point but I was for a short while even an AustLII staff member – Joe Ury 19 January 2001 – 30 June 2001 Research Officer.

  3. Iain Stewart says:

    BaiLII is great, but credit where it is due: BaiLII is a clone, in both concept and design, of AustLII, founded in 1995 and currently hosting over 20 gigabytes of raw text materials and over four million searchable documents, with over 900,000 hits daily. AustLII is run by two Sydney law schools and funded mainly by Australian law schools. WorldLII (dontya love the name!) is a much later offshoot of AustLII.

  4. NL says:

    We rely massively on Bailii to be able to direct readers to the actual judgments we report. NL would be a much poorer site without it, if possible at all. I hadn’t realised the situation was quite that perilous. Donation made.

  5. Peter Lindsay says:

    I cannot sing enough praises of BAILII, WorldLII and AustLII (who provide the underlying database technology on which all of the WorldLII/CommonLII databases depend.

    I will be making a donation this weekend.

    I have two pet gripes with BAILII / WorldLII:

    1. The WorldLII database technology uses a unique “SINO” database protocol instead of the academic standard Z39.11 or SRU protocols. This has a real impact on the compatibility of their databases with other library databases. Compare them with say PubMed or WorldCAT or GoogleScholar and you see how much their choice of technology limits their ability to work well with other software.

    This technology also makes the WorldLII websites incompatible with almost all academic reference management software.

    2. I differ with Ury on PDFs. PDFs are more secure documents than html or RTF files. It is more difficult to manipulate them. While Bruce Hyman type behaviour is thankfully rare , the BAILII firmat is vulnerable to forgery.

    PDFs are also the easiest format to exchange by email, print consistently regardless of the software program (not true of either html or RTF) and can be stored in all academic reference software. PDFs are the online standard for published academic reference articles. Thankfully, many of the WorldLII sites (other than BAILII) include PDFs as a download option.

  6. I quite agree with Adam’s article that what is inelegantly and inaccurately styled the “blogosphere” has become indispensable in sourcing legal information and that Bailii is the first and best source. I had no idea its existence was so fragile.

    Legal information is dynamic and is ideal for presentation and updating online, and of course the rules by which we are all expected to live should be freely available to all, not just the preserve of expensive legal publishers.

    And with the government’s Statute Law Database still unfortunately not 100% up to date despite their resources we still have a way to go.

    I got involved with the legal aid forum ilegal precisely because there was a huge need for a dynamic place to share information to help practitioners jump the hoops and traditional communications could not keep pace. Our team are all volunteers and many of the best sites/blogs are run that way. The Big Society already exists; Cameron should leave it alone, instead his colleagues are determined to undermine it through cutting basic access to justice

  7. Dave Carroll says:

    Looks like if a job is worth doing, we better do it ourselves …. but we are not alone …

    The powers that be divide and conquer us … so we must Unite to Win … Simples !!

    Respect, Friendship and Tolerance,

    Dave. {Stoge}

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