Twenty-First Century Encyclopedias

Word comes that the advertisements that we’ve been seeing in the law reports for the various national incarnations of Halsbury’s Laws (Australia, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, New Zealand) presage an announcement of Halsbury’s Laws of Canada.

Halsbury’s has always had an odd relationship to Canada. Students find it extraordinary that the Canadian Converter volumes track back to the third edition (the green one) which is now between forty and fifty years old.

Halsbury’s has said before that it wanted to improve this situation.

Those of us who have been doing this for a while recall that Bud Estey was named Chair of an abortive Halsbury’s Laws of Canada back in the Eighties. Came to nothing – either because they couldn’t get the funding or the market wasn’t there: I can’t remember.

My question, however, is whether a legal encyclopedia (in the traditional sense) is what we need. Lord knows the CED isn’t it.

But that led me to think about how legal doctrine gets produced, and what models should be appropriate.

The traditional Corpus Juris, Encyclopedie Juridique Dalloz, Halsbury’s approach dated from the same late 19th Century rationalization movements that fuelled the codification movement, the major legal treatises and the American Law Institute – ways of coming to terms with the blizzard of case law and applying a systematic and rational approach to law making. This much is clear from Chapter 7 of Weber’s On Law in Economy and Society.

But we’re in a different type of legal culture today, in which there are significant changes:

* with legal academics moving away from the production of major syntheses of the law (since tenure decisions don’t seem to turn on this anymore) can we expect to see works like Sharpe, Waddams or Maddaugh and McCamus again. Who will write Halsbury’s Laws of Canada?

* practitioners seem not to be producing the sort of treatises that they one did. They’re not rewarded for it anyway. Who will write Halsbury’s Laws of Canada? Young lawyers just out of the bar?

* does the proliferation of judgments together with modestly powerful search engines change our need to get at the law

* does the rise of the regulatory state and the proliferation of legislation that differs across jurisdictions make a Halsbury’s Laws of Canada simply an exercise in cross-country footnoting

* with web-based access to Halsbury’s Laws of England our use of the service has changed dramatically – how should this affect product design?

* hypertext may offer us different ways of ordering information – multi-level access to information that may recognize the home jurisdiction of a user. Do we need a service that assumes a uniform or average user?

* collaborative encyclopedias like Wikipedia have quality problems but do come up with some interesting entries – see BMG Canada Inc. v. John Doe for example. Does this offer us a different way forward?

* do Canadian users have different needs from those elsewhere in the Commonwealth? Both the Indian and Australian editions have come to terms with federal states.

What do you want a Halsbury’s Laws of Canada to be?


  1. I quite like the idea of it starting out as an electronic, collaborative encyclopedia a la Wikipedia. For it to be really worthwhile, there would need to be editors and fact-checkers reviewing and approving content, however. It appears to be difficult already keeping the CED up to date with its “few” subjects. Would there be enough knowledgable people across the country to really do it justice? (pun intended)

  2. I think that a Halsbury’s Canada is very long overdue. The CED simply doesn’t fill the gap that a ‘traditional’ encyclopedia does. As to whether there are enough people across the Canada – well Australia with 10 million less people has found enough to produce not one but TWO encyclopedias -Halsbury’s Laws of Australia and The Laws of Australia. Mind you when I come to find the $ to pay for it I may sing a different tune!