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JILT 1996 (3) - David Swarbrick

New Law goes On-line

David Swarbrick,
Swarbrick & Co
david@swarb.demon.co.uk


Someone has to do it sometime. It has to be possible to provide quick and easy access to court reports on-line at a reasonable cost. The New Law Publishing Co ('New Law') with their 'New Law On-Line' service aims to fill just that gap. Readers may well already be aware of this company's fax service, the new service brings the same information onto the Internet.

New Law obtain judgements as made on a day by day basis. A case is decided one day, and summarised by New Law the next. The full text judgement is available in preliminary format the day after. When the official judgement is handed down, it immediately replaces that initial 'hot off the press' version. Thus the best available text of the judgement is always available as quickly as it ever will be. This service is now extended so that the text of the judgement is available via the World Wide Web and is therefore also provided in electronic text.

An idea underpinning this service is that information has become a commodity. Until it is needed, you do not need it, and when you need it, you require it 'just in time.' Why stack quantities of books on your shelves, when all and only the information you need can be identified, located, and brought to your desk in less than the time it would take to get off your bottom, wander down to the office library, look about for mis- placed volumes and indices, search them, meander off to the photocopier and have what you want copied and brought up to you. Success would be a true marvel, and to be fair New Law have just about managed it.

What is impressive is the no-nonsense simplicity of the service. Log on, password, choose your area of law, choose the range of cases, see the head-notes, select a digest, read it and (if you want) click to download the full text of the judgement. The layout of the screens is uncluttered and straight to the point. The structure is logical, and what the user thinks needs to happen next, does happen next, and the way to do it is just about self-evident. The system does what windows type systems should do, make the manual just about unnecessary. Anyone sufficiently au fait to navigate the World Wide Web can be confident of tackling the scene he or she finds at this site.

I am also quite convinced that electronic text is a major advantage and a clear necessity for an Internet service. A competing system, Sweet and Maxwell's, provides a similar service until the very last moment. Having struggled and strained through the web and found the nugget you need, you find at the very last moment that fulfilment is denied to you and the judgement you urgently desire can be faxed to you almost instantly upon the press of a button and the charge of a credit card. Anyone who has got this far does not, definitely does not, want a fax, they want electronic text, and they want it now. The New Law system provides just that consummation. [Sweet and Maxwell's response to this point]

The other aspect of the service is the summary. It provides a way of keeping up to date. This summary service is free once you subscribe. The ability to search the database is most useful, and to know that you have obtained a definitive answer to a question is worthwhile. It is possible that a regular visit to the site to get an update on the most recent developments in the law will become de rigeur for many users. I do have one or two minor doubts.

The system depends upon the world wide web, and moreover the very latest and most technically able software. Many Internet users still do not use the Web. In some (dwindling) circles, the net is to be used by those exchanging text and text only - mail and news. Among those who do use the Web, by no means everyone will have the latest Navigator or Explorer and cannot get to the site. New Law need to leave the system just as it is so that the rest of us can catch up with our software. It makes full and proper use of the latest web features but additional bells whistles and Java type geegaws should be left for others.

At present the coverage is from the beginning of 1995 and it is not intended to take the series back in time. This places New Law's pitch fairly and squarely at those whose absolute last and desperate need is for the very latest judgement, the one handed down yesterday and unavailable to everyone else. This may be pandering to the weaker types in the profession; those whose lives are permanently darkened by paranoia - 'I looked this case up last week, but has it been reversed since?' and even more annoying the lawyers who dream of running into court on the last day of a trial waving a brand new decision to rescue the client and more importantly get one over on the firm down the street. Both are genuine but not particularly attractive aspects of the lawyer's mind.

Until the series has been established for several years and the coverage has grown accordingly, this 'very latest case syndrome' is inevitable. At the same time, it is happily undeniable that it is the more recent cases which we usually need to look up. These are the cases who have not found their way into the books, let alone whose status has been settled as worthy of its own chapter in a 'proper' law, or destined for relegation to life as a footnote or worse yet an 'also decided.'

Will printouts of this series be accepted in court? I am sure they should be, and New Law are as confident as you might expect, but they may yet have a little more to do. A book is not easily altered so that the history of reciting of cases in court has never involved the questioning of the veracity of the text. Things went a stage further with LEXIS print-outs. Lexis reports however have their own recognisable style, and in the past have been printed out more or less under the control of the publishers using dedicated Lexis terminals. Lexis also are reproducing case reports which are already available as major reports series.

New Law have a few additional difficulties. If I download a case, and wish to reproduce it in court, I have complete and easy access to the text and could for example insert or delete a 'not' here and there as required. The look of the printout will vary according to how I choose to prepare it, and there will be a temptation, perhaps inescapable in some firms, to mark it to show that it comes through them (`Look everybody, we're on Internet').

I may not be disbelieved turning up in court with a printout, but I may have to spend some time establishing its provenance. I have heard reports of people with Lexis print-outs being asked byjudges to provide the 'real' book for the court. How much further will New Law have to go? New Law should provide some documentation to explain and support their printouts, and an easy way of verifying their accuracy, perhaps by the use of digital signatures.

The brief historical range will be a major limitation for some time. The service covers very recent cases in Criminal Law, Commercial Law and Property Law. As each month goes by the unacknowledged embarrassment will diminish, but there is yet some way to go.

An issue which New Law appear not to have dealt with as yet is as to what users are expected to do after downloading their case. Having emerged smiling from court where does the case go. We all know the miseries of filing loose-leafs - how much more pain will be felt at texts each of which has cost twenty pounds being lost on assorted hard disks in an office, and who is going to index them.

The last doubt relates to the charging structure. When we buy a book, or subscribe to a series of law reports, we put the cost down as an overhead, a general expense. Because the need for a particular case report is associated with a current matter, the temptation may be to move the cost across until it becomes a disbursement chargeable to a particular matter. This raises issues well beyond the scope of this review, but I feel discomfort with the idea.

Will I be subscribing? No. I would like to use the system, but I rarely run down to court with the latest judgement. Life isn't quite that exciting. I have other well established ways of keeping my own knowledge up to date, and yet another will have to fight hard to establish a place. The competition from other systems - Lexis, the Sweet & Maxwell system and latterly also the Times (whose cases reports are available free on the web) is stiff and improving all the time. I am not convinced either that having a database on-line is going to be attractive. On-line access is still awkward. I have been using on-line services for several years, but it will still be some time before it is natural to look for a case first by logging on, and then trawling the depths of e-space.

Certainly for those practising criminal law in the lower courts (anywhere outside the Court of Appeal perhaps), the service would be interesting but quite uneconomic. A fixed fee Legal Aid system starting at one hundred and forty four pounds and twenty five pence per case simply does not allow room for such lavish expenditure. New Law have targeted the upper reaches of the law professions, and let us hope they find a profitable home there.


Date of publication: 30 September 1996

Citation: Swarbrick D (1996), 'New Law goes On-line', Web Review, 1996 (3) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/elj/jilt/sw/3swarb/>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/1996_3/swarbrick/>

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