Skip to main content Skip to navigation

JILT 1997 (2) - Editorial

Welcome to the second issue of JILT for 1997 which we hope will improve on the high standards set previously!

The current debate on electronic legal information

There was a time in the 1980s when it seemed that electronic legal information retrieval was destined to be dominated worldwide by the two largest players - LEXIS and WESTLAW - as they quickly established truly global electronic law libraries. However, this domination was dented by the rapid growth of CD-ROM based systems. CD developers had major advantages. They did not need a huge infrastructure to develop and maintain their datasets. Distribution was even easier through the post, with no need for complicated audit trails and accounting structures. Moreover, the new PC and Windows based interfaces provided were a great improvement on the ageing infrastructure of the online systems, with a variety of search and navigation techniques transcending the limitations of the boolean techniques. Of course the online systems developers did not stand still while this was going on and there has been a slow but continuing process of development. CD based systems do suffer from a number of disadvantages. In particular, they are not standardised, each system has its own interface, search and navigation techniques which have to be learnt for each system. There is also the difficulty of providing links between one system and the other.

Just as it seemed that the issue in electronic legal information systems was between proprietary online systems such as LEXIS and WESTLAW and mushrooming libraries of CD-ROMs, a revolutionary new contender has entered the scene in the form of world wide web based legal information systems. The promise is of global libraries of information produced in a decentralised manner and delivered with great efficiency to a much wider audience than was imagined possible even a few years ago. It is a promise as alluring as that performed by the Code Civil in delivering the great new French Code to the pocket of every citizen who wished to acquire it. It is therefore not surprising that in a period when the right to primary legal information is once again considered a matter of public service, the judiciary in the United Kingdom should be seduced by the promise of the Web. Current House of Lords decisions are already on the web. However, Lord Justice Saville nails his colours to the mast in this interesting preface to the first Court of Appeal judgment to be put on the world wide web on the appropriately named Open Government site:

"Such is the scale of the difficulties that have been confronting the lower courts that we have asked that a copy of this judgment should be sent immediately to every county court in England and Wales (for distribution to the judges who sit at that court), as well as to all the parties in all the appeals and applications awaiting decisions by this court. The text of this judgment is to be made available immediately on FELIX, the judges' electronic bulletin board and on the Internet . If this country was in the same happy position as Australia, where the administration of the law is benefiting greatly from the pioneering enterprise of the Australasian Legal Information Institute (AUSTLII), we would have been able to make this judgment immediately available in a very convenient electronic form to every judge and practitioner in the country without the burdensome costs that the distribution of large numbers of hard copies of the judgment will necessarily impose on public funds."

This issue of JILT is largely about electronic legal information. The fact that this was not a deliberate decision of the editors is testimony to the remarkable current interest in the issue. In view of Saville LJ's commendation of the work of AustLII, we are proud to publish the The AustLII Papers: New Directions in Law via the Internet, which constitute a comprehensive account by the AustLII team of all aspects of AustLII's development and operation. In our view, the AustLII papers are compulsory reading for anyone involved with a law web site.

Two studies on user needs provide an interesting context to the debates about the approach to communication of information. Philip Leith's article on The Communication of Legal Information in Ireland is a comprehensive study of user needs in relation to the development of an Irish statute book. The pace of development in a small jurisdiction may be contrasted with the remarkable developments in Australia, but the underlying issues remain the same, with a general desire for a coherent computerised statute book.

Abdul Paliwala et al in User needs in relation to electronic law reporting: A research study of the Law Reports interviewed prominent judges, barristers, solicitors, academics and librarians in a study of user needs in relation to the development of a CD based version of the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting's series of Law Reports. Two clear perspectives emerge - users would prefer the electronic version to be similar to the paper version rather than a radical departure from them. The other plea was for the development of common standards. The research was carried out at a time when it was not possible to address fully the issue of web based systems. Neverheless, the issues raised in the research are germane to the current debates.

One aspect of these debates is provocatively raised by Robin Williamson's commentary on Free Access to Electronic Legal Information from the perspective of publishers. This debate is vigorously joined by Professor Picciotto, and a number of other contributors are expected to join issue after the online day. In accordance with JILT's policy of encouraging a forum for discussion, we invite readers to contribute to this debate.

A major problem of legal information retrieval has been how to retrieve all and only the appropriate references. There has been a significant amount of technical research in this area about ways of transcending boolean search techniques. The AustLII Papers indicate interesting developments in web based search engines. Van Noortwijk et al's article on The Similarities of Text Documents addresses the issue of developing conceptual legal retrieval at a more fundamental technical level using jurimetrics and AI techniques. Their approach is to develop means of discerning similar patterns in documents being searched, enabling searching for similar patterns of text rather than a combination of words or phrases.

Other refereed articles

The two other refereed articles do not deal with legal information retrieval as such. Akdeniz et al in Can the Trusted Third Parties be Trusted? A Critique of the Recent UK Proposals suggest that while recent UK proposals claim to address both the goal of improving commerce through better encryption and that of facilitating access to encrypted communications by law enforcement, the impact of the proposals is in fact to impair the former goal in order to favour the latter. The proposals tend to call for 'key escrow' or 'key recovery' systems that centralise sensitive keys in databases (at 'Trusted Third Parties') and permit government access in a manner similar to that in which phone wiretaps are currently conducted. The authors argue that key escrow represents an unprecedented intrusion on individual privacy, holds back the development of digital communications and commerce, and does not achieve the government's stated goals of helping to prevent crime.

The last article, by Migdal et al, Pure Electronic Delivery of Law Modules - Dream or Reality? continues the discussion of multimedia computer based learning by attempting to give a positive answer to the question whether computer based learning can be a complete substitute for personal contact teaching. Neither IOLIS (See also Peter Moodie in 1997 (1) JILT which is being used now in nearly all UK law schools, nor the Scots Law Courseware, attempt to replace personal contact teaching. The Wolverhampton team attempt to demonstrate the possibility of doing this in the context of two multimedia modules developed at the University.

Authoritative Commentaries

In accordance with JILT's growing tradition of providing an electronic bazaar, this issue provides a feast of commentaries, case commentaries, book reviews, conference reports, IT reviews, a conference diary and news reports. In particular, we see commentaries as the basis of encouraging practitioners and academics to provide information and opinion on matters of interest.

The contributions to the commentary section of this issue are remarkable for their scope, variety and the authority of the contributors. We have already mentioned the important debate joined between Robin Williamson commentary and Professor Sol Picciotto. In addition, we are delighted to include a short article by Sir Brian Jenkins, Chairman of Woolwich Building Society and Professor Richard Susskind on A New IT Infrastructure for London. Bill Onwusah deals with IT in the legal professions in his piece on The Investment Conundrum . Peter Brudenall's report on the Australian Copyright Amendment Bill and Veronica Cnossen and Veronica Smith's piece on research methodologies and information technology vouch for the quality, depth and variety of contributions.

Speedy Case Commentaries

This issue sees the introduction of case commentaries section including Fujitsu Ltd's Application ([1996] RPC 511 and Pitman Training Limited and PTC Oxford Ltd v Nominet UK Ltd and Pearson Professional Ltd (High Court Ch D 22 May 1997). The speed with which an electronic journal can operate is vouchsafed by the learned commentary by Charlotte Waelde on the Internet domain names case of Pitman Training Limited and PTC Oxford Ltd v Nominet UK Ltd and Pearson Professional Ltd (High Court Ch D 22 May 1997) (Pitman) . The fact that the as yet unreported case was made available on the Internet by the High Court was an added bonus to speed of review.

New Developments in JILT

JILT itself is part of the new age of web based electronic legal information. The feedback from readers, the audit trail of readers and the growing popularity of JILT as a medium for original academic and practical publication suggests that we are on our way to ensuring the acceptability of original electronic law journals as a genuine vehicle for scholarship. We would like to thank readers and writers for helping us along the way.

This is also evidenced in the large increase in the use made of links to sources on the Internet now cited in articles by authors. This has led us to introduce a new section which we believe will become as useful as a listing of references, the 'Links' section. This collation of links will we hope become standard in the electronic journal environment.

This and other issues of JILT are made possible through the dedicated effort of the JILT Team. In the case of this issue, we were also assisted by the new editors Mark Gould of Bristol University and Dave Chadwick of the CTI Law Technology Centre.

JILT logo and link to home page