Caselaw databases are frequently described as being “comprehensive” collections of cases with the meaning of the word “comprehensive” left undefined. The exceptions, of course, are databases based on print series of law reports which are by definition “selective”.
Some but not all database providers do say that they have so many hundreds or so many thousands of judgments covering specific years or time periods. Some say nothing at all. A few provide further details of the number of decisions by court level but, in general, vagueness is the order of the day.
“Vagueness” is not an acceptable standard
Legal researchers on the other hand need to know for certain what data they have in fact reviewed or considered as part of the research process. “Vagueness” is not an acceptable standard. A major commercial advantage should ensue to the legal publisher that can claim that it has audited its databases and can clearly state the scope of its databases in terms that can be easily understood by the user.
Auditing databases is not a difficult task. It is merely time consuming. LexisNexis engaged in one such exercise when Canada Law Book announced that it would remove its criminal and labour arbitration databases from Quicklaw. By the time the proprietary databases were removed, LexisNexis had identified the missing cases in its own databases and replaced the content.
Cases reported in print and available online
It should be possible for publishers who claim to have “comprehensive” collections of cases to be more specific about their claims.
Do they in fact have all cases reported in print? If not all cases, what cases? While it is not possible to say that a collection includes a particular series of law reports published by a competitor, it is possible to say that a database includes all cases reported in print from a specific date. It is also possible to say that a collection includes all cases decided prior to a specific date that are subsequently considered or referred to in cases decided after that date.
Similarly, it should now be possible to establish a mechanism to ensure that all cases issued by a court in fact were received by the publisher and mounted online. It is a very basic element of even the most limited quality assurance program to check to see that all of the cases that should be in a database are really there.
The era of claiming that a publisher has “lots of cases” or a “a critical mass of cases” or “more cases” than the next guy should be coming to an end. Meeting customer needs includes letting them know exactly what they are getting for their money.