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JILT 1998 (2) - Kelsie Aquatias

New Directions in Legal Information Systems

Reviewed by
Kelsie Aquatias
University of Lincolnshire and Humberside

1. Introduction
  1.1 Introducing the Seminar
2. Primary Legal Information on the Internet
3. Free Access to Electronic Law?
4. Whose Law is it Anyway?
5. Proprietary Legal Information Systems
6. An Academic Perspective
7. A Librarian's Perspective
8. Discussions

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This is a Conference Report published on 30 June 1998.

Citation: Aquatias K, 'New Directions in Legal Information Systems', Conference Report, 1998 (2) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <>.

1. Introduction

The following is a summary of the issues discussed at the recent seminar at Warwick University. The aim of the seminar was to explore the ways in which electronic legal information is being developed and the implications of these developments for academics, learning support staff and publishers.

Several questions were raised before the seminar:

  • Will the Internet ever successfully satisfy all our legal information requirements?
  • Are comprehensive legal datasets going to be made freely available on the Internet?
  • What is the future for Proprietary Legal Information Systems, both on-line and CD-ROM based?

1.1 Introducing the Seminar

Professor Abdul Paliwala, Director, CTI Law Technology Centre.
Professor Paliwala began by describing the situation today as one in which we have a great richness in information coinciding with the poverty of access and use. Users of electronic legal information today need:

  • access from the desktop
  • training
  • friendly interfaces
  • search and navigation systems
  • a harmonisation of standards and interconnectivity (i.e. a common interface)
  • consistency and accuracy

He asked the main questions for the day -

  • Is electronic legal information meeting the needs of all its potential users (academic, professional and public)?
  • What should be the role of the legal community, the government and publishers in providing for these needs?

2. Primary Legal Information on the Internet - Vision and Reality

Primary legal information, Crown Copyright and Privatisation of Government services
Andrew Charlesworth, Director, Information Law and Technology Unit, University of Hull.
The Internet has become an increasingly valuable and well-used research tool, many jurisdictions have provided a lot of primary legal information this way, in the form of legislation and case law, via this medium. The UK has been slow to make primary legal information available on the Internet. We have access to statutes but they are only up to date as they are published and do not allow for any amendments. The reasons for this are mainly two key issues: the privatisation of government services, most notably HMSO, and the debate over Crown Copyright. Crown Copyright provides a property right in government information, which privatised agencies and, commercial providers of information, wish to use to raise revenues.

There is an on-going debate about the status of primary legal information in the UK and the right of the general public to have meaningful access to it, without undue cost barriers. Andrew Charlesworth examined recent government initiatives such as the Green paper on electronic Delivery of Government Services (1996) and the consultation document 'Crown Copyright in the Information age' (1998) <> - the consultation period ends on March 30th 1998. It was suggested that HMSO abolish the licences for legislative and judicial material, as the income is relatively low in any case.

3. Free Access to Electronic Law?

Robin Williamson, Managing Director, Context Ltd (publishers of JUSTIS).
Information technology has provided us with new methods of publishing legal and official information. The increased availability and use of the Internet has resulted in more demands that the text of law and official information should be made freely available on the Internet. However, those who wish to see free access need to consider very carefully the implications that this would have on the provision of high quality electronic legal databases. This raises a number of issues which need further examination and Robin Williamson, as an electronic publisher of law and official information, has a commercial interest in the outcome of this debate:

  • It is important to identify the beneficiaries of free access and quantify the benefits they will receive.
  • Effective software requires easy access, indexing, cross referencing, keywords, commentary and so on. How will these be funded?
  • The user needs to be stimulated by marketing, promotion and support - how can a sufficient level of support be maintained in a free service?

It is on these grounds that Robin Williamson argues that there is still a major role for the commercial publisher, even in a 'free' information environment. The commercial publisher is there to 'add electronic value' by competition, enhanced software, data quality, support and training.

It is important to establish boundaries between free access and commercial provision but the difficulty is in distinguishing between which products 'inform the citizen' and which 'aid the profession'. The charge would then be for the value added to the source.

4. Whose Law is it Anyway?

Neil Cameron, Independent Legal Technology Consultant.
Neil Cameron believes that all UK law (case and statute) should be:

  • freely available to all
  • in a form which is updated and in a regular and timely fashion
  • accessible in ways which do not predicate that the user already knows the existence, nature and/or location of material (i.e. it should be fully searchable and well indexed.)
  • user friendly for the person in the street (i.e. suitably cross-referenced and hyperlinked.)

The current situation is that statutes and SIs are available on the Internet, although the Internet service from HMSO is interesting rather than useful as there are no updates and the searching is not very effective. The provision of cases is very complicated - there have been some initiatives (e.g. by the Court Service and Smith Bernal's Casetrack) but they are fragmented. A major project by Syntegra - the Statute Law Database (Banquo's Ghost) has been under development for many years. There is a similar situation in the provision of EC law on the Internet - Court judgements and legislation are not linked or updated.

This is very different to other jurisdictions, particularly Australia (AUSTLII) and the US, where legal information is relatively inexpensive.

Principles to support free access:

  • ignorance of the law
  • citizen's rights
  • primary law is marketing material in legal forums
  • increasing volumes and complexity
  • primary law is not government information
  • it would push material to people rather than them having to pull it to themselves.

Publishers should still be able to make a living therefore they should add value to free information and charge for the added value (e.g. annotations, headnotes, etc). Companies and lawyers are also citizens. Therefore they should be able to have free access but pay for any added value.


  • Ideally cases, statutes, SIs should be on the Internet free, quick and easily accessible, cross-referenced and indexed and regularly amended. Who would provide this single body of material?
  • Crown copyright should be abolished or waived on basic legal information
  • Banquo's Ghost should be completed and made available free
  • The Court service (Lord Chancellor's Dept.) should provide cases and join with Banquo's Ghost to link to and fro.

5. Proprietary Legal Information Systems - Current Perspectives and Future Developments.

Riding the Storm
Michael Fanning, Director, Legal Information Services, LEXIS-NEXIS Europe Ltd.

Many people believe that, with the advent of the Internet, many proprietary legal information service providers will become redundant:34% of LEXIS-NEXIS revenue comes from the UK Legal File; 30% of the US information accessed through LEXIS is actually available free elsewhere so why do people pay for it and why does LEXIS-NEXIS continue to generate large revenues and double digit growth?

  • Convenience of access
  • LEXIS has adopted Internet technologies (Web version)
  • Traditional services are able to adapt to the Internet
  • Pressure of competition (mainly from the US) - more lawyers are now on the Internet
  • LEXIS became involved in the research and communication aspects of Internet use by developing LEXIS-NEXIS Xchange.

LEXIS-NEXIS Xchange arose out of the requirements and use of the Internet by US attorneys. It is a new way of accessing LEXIS-NEXIS in a browser with hyperlinks. Services can be integrated (citations, similar articles, etc) enabling a smoother running of the LEXIS-NEXIS interface. It is currently only available in the US but information can be obtained from the LEXIS Web site.

6. An Academic Perspective

Bruce Grant, Lecturer, University of Newcastle, BILETA Datasets Covenor.

There are significant differences between Universities and other users of legal information:

  • Funding - from the academic department or from central library or learning support departments; CHEST deals, computing is often centrally funded also.
  • Variety of network licences - single user licences are not much use; single user password access is better but still not ideal; multiple use passwords are available; metering is available so there can be many simultaneous connections; site licences are ideal for universities especially if they allow for cross-campus access - any student can access the software on any machine.
  • Technical problems - installation difficulties (problems with ELR running on windows 3.1), some have to be configured for the university's own use. Internet access is ideal, Telnet less so.

Bruce Grant believes site licences should include off campus access, as they should cover all potential users of a university network. This is of interest to many universities at the moment.

7. The Future of Proprietary CD-ROM Publishing, a Librarian's Perspective

Michael Dunne, Assistant Librarian Law, Lancaster University.

When CD-ROMs first started appearing about 15 years ago, academic librarians were generally very enthusiastic about the medium. Many people, however, soon claimed that the new technology was 'transient' and had no great future as an information tool. Most librarians carried on purchasing the ever increasing range of new CD-ROM products. This raises several questions:

  • Were the original claims correct?
  • Is the end of the CD-ROM in sight?
  • Have libraries invested too much in the technology to let it go without a struggle?
  • What about archiving?

There has been a migration of many service to the WWW but new titles are still being published in CD-ROM format, even though many of these are duplicates of the paper copies. The importance libraries have placed on the CD-ROM means that paper journals have been cancelled in order to pay for them and money for licences has had to be found. CD-ROMS are popular with students and there has been a massive investment in hardware at universities to accommodate CD-ROMs.

Problems arise when leaps are made in the technological provision of material - paper copies cancelled to purchase a CD which is later discontinued means there can be gaps in the archive. There are now many Web versions of CD titles which are useful for up to date material and CDs can be used as archive. But CDs are easier for students to access than web versions with password access. Speed is an advantage when using CD-ROM but there can be installation problems leading to delays in house. It would be advantageous for students to have more 'loose-leaf' materials published on CD-ROM, authoritative texts could be converted and updated easily. Rapid changes in technology will severely affect the usability of archives, as information is stored on many different formats (paper, microfiche, CD-ROM, Internet) and hardware has to be maintained to allow for access.

8. Discussions

  • Most of the speakers agreed that basic legal information should be available to 'ordinary people' but the concern was raised that, if free information does not include 'added value', will it really be in a form easily accessible to ordinary citizens?
  • The point was raised that intermediaries would be necessary for the general public market, for example in libraries or Citizens Advice Bureaux and other voluntary organisations.
  • Abdul Paliwala believes that, as book based law and the research of law in paper form is very complex, the advent of electronic legal information would actually make legal information more easily accessible and would encourage self-education.
  • Neil Cameron suggested that more freely accessible law might encourage legislators to use plainer English.
  • AUSTLII is now regarded in Australia as a standard tool of law. As it grew, more information was contributed. Consequently, it has become a dissemination tool for law makers.
  • Michael Fanning also suggested that basic access to the law should not have to be available solely on the Internet. In Germany small inexpensive paperbacks are available on each aspect of the law and this provides even wider access to the law at very low cost.
  • With electronic information there can be a barrier at the entry point. This obstacle should be overcome by access through libraries, local authorities and voluntary organisations.

The Scarman Centre in which the Seminar was held is very nice and the lunch was delicious. We were also given background notes on all the speakers which was very useful. There was a good mix of speakers and delegates ranging from publishers, academic staff, librarians and support staff. It was a very interesting day.

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