What Is The Open Law Project?

    The Open Law Project is a three year Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) funded project with three main objectives:

    •    to support teaching and learning in legal education in further and higher education across the UK by creating a database of important legal judgments and reports that is freely and openly available on the internet;

    •    to work with academic lawyers throughout the UK to identify significant older judgments from England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland which are regularly referenced in legal education to meet the core needs of those teaching and studying law at all levels; and

    •    to enhance the usability of BAILII by improving website navigation and search functions.

    Access to case law, legislation and other official documents is central to the teaching of law and to developing skills in legal research and legal reasoning. Many standard legal resources are not readily available in print or online because they are either restricted to reference libraries or are prohibitively expensive. Consequently, the availability of core legal materials has always been a challenge for law departments across the country. BAILII allows direct access to its materials free of charge and does not require users to have passwords. Using BAILII, lecturers can provide teaching materials which link directly from their own websites to a judgment or a paragraph in a judgment on BAILII and librarians can catalogue cases as part of their electronic resources collections. Although the project is primarily student oriented, JISC's and BAILII's commitment to open access principles in this project means that legal professionals, the business community and the general public will also be able to access the most important legal materials free of charge..

    Who are BAILII?

    BAILII - the British and Irish Legal Information Institute - has been in existence since 2000 and relies totally upon charitable donations and support from sources such as the legal profession, academic community, and organizations such as the Society for Computers and Law (SCL), the British and the Irish Legal Education Technology Association (BILETA), British and Irish Association of Law Librarians (BIALL), and Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (IALS).  BAILII came into being because of the difficulties in accessing legal judgments and legislation facing many lawyers, especially those in small practices.  While these were often available from commercial sources, they were fragmented and very expensive to access.  The original debate over the need for BAILII can be read here.  BAILII exists to make the raw data of UK law available freely and easily accessible on the Internet to a wide community: practicing lawyers, legal academics, historians, university students, school students, further education students, and to the wider world of the European Community and smaller overseas commonwealth jurisdictions. 

    Since the database  was first made available  its size has increased dramatically. The need for systems such as BAILII is illustrated by the fact that many jurisdictions have set up similar Legal Information Institutes to carry out the same tasks.  Details of this international community are at the WorldLII web site.  Biennual conferences are held by the LII community and Legal Information Institutes have agreed to common goals:

    Who are JISC?

    JISC are the Joint Information Systems Committee, a title which indicates neither their importance nor their role.  They are, basically, the source of funding for most of the academic UK computing infrastructure, but they also have a very much wider role in the education of the academic community on how best to utilise IT in a whole host of ways - from e-learning, through advice on intellectual property law, to the development of databases which are of use to the community.  A list of the many projects supported and/or initiated by JISC is available here.  JISC's funding for this project illustrates their strong support for the law community in all areas of education. It can also be seen that the LII philsophy fits well with many of JISC's aims.  IFor more information on JISC and law generally, see the JISC Legal Information Service.

    Is BAILII competition to the Commercial Providers?

    No. BAILLI is simply fulfilling the guidelines of the Council of Europe Recommendations:

    Recommendation Rec(2001)3 of the Committee of Ministers to member states on the delivery of court and other legal services to the citizen through the use of new technologies  (adopted by the Committee of Ministers on 28 February 2001 at the 743rd meeting of the Ministers' Deputies).

    Recommendation Rec(2001)2 of the Committee of Ministers to member states concerning the design and re-design of court systems and legal information systems in a cost-effective manner (adopted by the Committee of Ministers on 28 February 2001 at the 743rd meeting of the Ministers' Deputies).

    BAILII provides access to law for the citizen without providing 'added value' to the raw materials such as headnotes, annotations, citation services, etc. These are the kinds of tasks which the commercial suppliers are expert at. Commercial services are, in the case of Incorporated Council of Law Reporting, the preferred authority in court. Companies who produce databases such as Justis, Lexis and Westlaw invest heavily in adding editorial content and developing sophisticated software for their search engines and interfaces. BAILII does no editorial 'value adding', and sees this activity rightly as the role of commercial legal information publishers.

    You may have heard of the government funded Statute Law Database project. Is BAILII a competitor? Once again, no.  That project is attempting to make sense of the morass which is UK legislation so that it is possible to determine what law was in force at any point in time and - given the nature of this legislation - requires resources which are far beyond those available to BAILII both in setting it up such a database and keeping it current. 

    database does have its advantages, providing:

    •    speedy access to new judgments, usually available within a few hours of receipt

    •    automatic processing of materials to embed hypertext links

    •    database access that does not require a password mediation

    •    stable URLs for all documents and segments of text

    BAILII, then, is a publisher of raw data.  In an ideal system it would not be needed, as government itself would be responsible for providing judgments in an electronic form.  The Legal Information Institute movement has emerged precisely because governments of many countries, the UK included, have not undertaken that task.

    Who are on the Open Law project team?

    Team members include a sub-committee of the Trustees of BAILII and the following Project Officers:

    Mr. Roger Burton West, BAILII System Administrator / Developer
    Ms. Cynthia Fellows (Open Law Project Consultant)

    If you have any queries about the project or any suggestions, feel free to get in touch via BAILII Feedback.  We view this project as a community resource and your input to it is vital.

    Why the Open Law Project?

    Access to Judgments

    In a common law jurisdiction, in theory at least, any judgment remains important potentially forever.  Of course, given the huge numbers which are being produced every year, in practice the importance of a judgment usually relies upon whether it has set out law in a significantly new manner or whether it is important to an area which is fast developing.  BAILII is now supplying that latter group of judgments, but the former - a relatively small group of judgments - are not available BAILII since most of them pre-date 1996 when BAILII came into existence.  This project aims to identify and add to BAILII a limited number of judgments that are important in the core teaching areas of law.  Why? Because access to current case law and to leading judgments is central to teaching law and developing skills in legal research and legal reasoning.

    Usability Assessment

    Law teaching and law student research resources have changed over the past 20 years.  Law lecturers are rarely from the traditional part-time barrister mould: they usually carry out substantial research not just into what is known as substantive law, but also into the context of law and policy backgrounds.  Little wonder then that the reading list of today's lecturer in contract law is as likely to include theoretical articles on the meaning of property as well as older important judgments and official reports of committees.   And law lecturers now have access to e-learning tools with which they can upload reading lists for students that have direct links to materials online. But despite familiarity with computer research in general, students are likely to struggle using legal information databases. Legal websites must be designed with student users and novice users in mind if they are to be of value. Because of the unique nature of legal content, special consideration must be given to the search engine, site navigation and explanatory help.

    BAILII is a resource not only for academic users – it also serves legal professionals and individuals without a law background who have a need for legal information. Through the Open Law Project, BAILII seeks to make to the raw information on BAILII more accessible to all users, regardless of their level of legal searching expertise. To this end, BAILII has undertaken a preliminary analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the website, focusing primarily on navigability and search engine performance. BAILII's analysis involved interviews with legal information specialists, a review of the literature examining student search behavior in legal databases, observations of search behavior in legal databases, and a review of BAILII search logs. The perceived advantages of alternative legal search engines and database interfaces were also studied and considered.

    Pursuant to a report summarizing the findings of the initial analysis and recommending specific improvements to the website and search engine, BAILII implemented enhancements to the database on a test server in May 2006. The enhancements included visual improvement of the screen displays; more points of access for initiating searches and selecting databases; additional options for locating documents by title; additional options for results display; revised search help and some basic subject indexing of the leading cases in core areas of law.

    The website underwent continual modification over a period of several months. Comments on the usability of the website received via the feedback email form provided on the test server were taken into consideration. In November and December 2006, 30 law students and legal academics participated in a usability study of the test server interface. After each phase of testing, the website was revised in response to student comment and observed behaviour. The resulting interface replaced the original BAILII interface on 4 February 2007.

    The Importance of the Academic Community to the Project

    The Open Law project is designed to support legal teaching. This requires close contact with the teaching community - individual academics and interested groups. A first step was to identify potential content. This was accomplished in collaboration with academics, librarians, and special interest groups such as the Society of Legal Scholars and through review of subject syllabi. The main emphasis is on the core areas of:

    Family, employment, tax and company law will be included as well so that staff and students dealing with legal issues on option and non-law courses, such as business or the environment, will have a resource upon which to draw. The acquisition of these judgments and other reports means that the project will digitize over 40,000 pages.

    To best reflect the needs of its end users, BAILII has conducted a broad canvas of teachers, academics and law librarians, contacting them by post, e-mail, bulletin board and newsletter, seeking their input in compiling the lists of cases which will eventually comprise the database. A provisional list of around 1500 judgments has been identified already. You can view these lists by following these links:

    Constitutional Law
    Contract Law
    Criminal Law
    Criminal Law (Scotland)
    Employment Law
    English Legal System
    Family Law
    Family Law (Scotland)
    Human Rights (ECHR)
    Immigration and Asylum
    Land Law (Northern Ireland)
    Northern Ireland Legal System
    Property Law
    Tax Law
    Tort Law
    Trust Law

    Law Commission Reports on BAILII

    The project also seeks to provide supplementary legal materials useful to the teaching syllabus. With the cooperation and kind permission of the Law Commission, the NI Office of Law Reform, and the NI Law Reform Advisory Committee, BAILII is creating a back catalogue of reports and starting from 1966.

    BAILII would like to thank JISC for funding this project.