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JILT 1997 (3) - Law via the Internet

Law via the Internet '97

Reviewed by
Professor Jon Bing
University of Oslo

1. The AustLII
2. Legal Information Systems
3. Legal Policy
4. Conclusion

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This is a Conference Report published on 4 August 1997.

Citation: Bing J, 'Law via the Internet '97', Conference Report, 1997 (3) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <>

1. The AustLII

Law via the Internet '97 was sub-titled the '1st AustLII Conference on Computerisation of Law via the Internet'. The major issue of the conference was related to legal policy, symbolised by the achievement of AustLII – the Australasian Legal Information Institute, a joint facility of the law faculties of the University of Technology, Sydney and the University of New South Wales. It is a young organisation, established in July 1995, and started out by providing free access to the Australian Commonwealth Consolidated Statues and indexes to other sources of Australian law available on the Net. The co-directors of AustLII are Andrew Mowbray (UTS) and Graham Greenleaf (UNSW), and the initiative is one more example of the energy and enthusiasm of this team. In the two years AustLII has existed, it has grown tremendously, and at the time of the conference, the service included 50 separate searchable data bases, comprising approximately half a million pages of text in HTML-format, representing approximately 3 Gb of original text before mark-up and indexing. The pages include approximately 13 million hyperlinks, mainly to other material provided by AustLII. The system offers approximately 60,000 decisions by courts and tribunals, and approximately 400,000 sections of regulations. The management of the site has stimulated innovative program development. For instance, on the basis of the know-how developed for their Data Protection and Intellectual Property Work Stations the team has the ambition to integrate high performance text retrieval, hyper-text and knowledge based systems (using a rather simple rule based inference machine).

The service has already become quite well known. Not only has it won the Australian Internet award for best professional services site, and is one of the 5 most popular Australian Web sites, perhaps more important is the mention made by the British Supreme Court of Judicature, Court of Appeal (Civil Division) 25 April 1997 in Bannister Appellant v SGB plc & Ors Respondent et al, where Justice Saville in the preface to the decisions says:

'This is the judgement of the court to which all three members of the court have contributed equally. As we will explain, we have chosen these 19 appeals and two applications out of more than a hundred appeals and applications which were awaiting disposal by the court in March of this year, in order to give us the opportunity of dealing with a very large number of unresolved issues on the proper interpretation of Order 17 Rule 11 of the County Court Rules. We are also using the occasion to restate the existing law on this topic in a single judgment. 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 judgement 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.'

It is therefore, a service born of the Net. The service can best be appreciated by a visit at the site <>, where the conference papers are also available.

2. Legal Information Systems

The Net has also invigorated the discussion of legal information systems, a field which to some extent has been ailing for the past few years. The conference was back-to-back with the International Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Law (ICAIL '97), and Daniel Poulin of the University of Montreal, Quebec (who presented the work done by the Centre de Recherche en Droit Public on making the cases of the Supreme Court of Canada available on the Internet) made an acute observation. After the flurry created by an interest in knowledge based systems in the middle of the 1980s, many are now returning to the text based systems, trying to make these 'smarter', probably based on the realisation that much of legal knowledge in the foreseeable future will be contained in natural language documents. Representing them in the necessary formalism for knowledge based systems still represents a formidable task, therefore ways of using knowledge based systems as ports into textual data bases for enhanced retrieval, or analysing texts by smarter methods (his own example is based on interpretation of SGML-documents) have gained momentum. The older speciality of 'conceptual text retrieval' has become more interesting due to the accessibility provided by the web.

3. Legal Policy

The conference itself revolved around legal policy: The access to legal material by the public at large. As the conference took place in Australia, where the doctrine of 'Crown Copyright' still remains in one form or the other, much of the discussion was related to the obligation of governments to make the material available freely to any interested party. In most jurisdictions, legislation, court cases and similar material are excluded from copyright protection, exploiting the provision in the Berne Convention art 2(4) to regulate the protection of this type of material in national legislation.

Again, the advent of the web, and its general availability, has made this a more visible policy issue. Last century, the Lex Gambetta type legislation required that law should be made available by print, and the system of alerting the public to changes by a legal gazette was nearly universally introduced, replacing the older system where changes in the law were announced from the steps of the church or other public gathering places. In 1970, Spiros Simitis in his landmark of a book Informationskrise des Rechts und Datenverarbeitung, maintained that time had come to use computers to solve the same problem by new technology. And now, the web has made this policy issue even more acute.

Several of the papers addressed more or less directly this issue. I will be allowed the small ethnocentric aside to mention that the commercial Norwegian service provider Lovdata has, from their commercial point of view, decided that it would not serve their interest to withhold legislation from the Net, but has made the legislation freely available without restrictions, currently maintained in a consolidated form, a position discussed in the paper of Trygve Harvold at the conference. This may actually be the first complete national body of legislation to be made available on the web.

4. Conclusion

Therefore, rather than being a compilation of examples from around the world on how Web technology has been used to provide access to legal source material – as the a reader of the published papers may be led to believe – the conference became a lively forum for policy discussion, a forum which is sorely needed for this field. After the Council of Europe discontinued its Committee on Legal Data Processing, there has not been a central forum for such important discussions. Perhaps the AustLII conferences will provide this in the future – for a follow up conference for 1998 was announced. Or perhaps the initiative taken at the conference by Graham Greenleaf, Daniel Poulin, and Trygve Harvold to establish a new international organisation of public legal information service providers will offer us such a forum in the future.

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