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The Future of Headnotes

I believe that a book without an index is not as useful as a book with a good index. 

A case headnote can provide a complete index to a judicial decision.

Headnotes are at risk because the full text of legal decisions without headnotes are now available free on the Internet from multiple sources. This free access has resulted in a dramatic reduction of print subscriptions to law reports.

Is there a need for headnotes? Headnotes tend to save time for a searcher by providing an index to a decision and by providing index material for digests. When a judicial decision refers to a case without a headnote, the searcher may be required to decide the relevance of the unheadnoted case, which can be time consuming. 

The time saving provided by a headnote applies to both the print and online version of law reports.

As all decisions are now available on the Internet, the preparation of a headnote sends a signal to the searcher that the case is judged useful. At Maritime Law Book approximately 30% of the trial decisions that we receive from the courts are judged not worthy of a headnote. This selection process acts as a time-saving filter for the searcher.

Maritime Law Book editors prepare a headnote for nearly all Court of Appeal decisions. 

Most headnotes for law reports are prepared by editors employed by private law book publishers. Revenue to pay editors has been declining steadily since the start of the Internet. Some publishers employ freelance editors or independent contractors to prepare headnotes. Here at Maritime Law Book we believe that an in-house editorial staff tends to produce a better quality headnote than the headnotes that are prepared by freelancers or by editors located overseas.

The use of computers has resulted in the increased efficiency of both typists and editors. For example, at Maritime Law Book the use of computers has resulted in an increase in the individual production of editors. Some expenses have been lowered markedly by advancing technology, for example, the ability to print to demand has markedly lowered publishers’ printing costs. 

Publishers’ subscription losses in the past 10 years has resulted in substantial price increases so that a single volume of caselaw of approx. 400 pages now sells for over $300 and in some cases for $350. The high price of caselaw volumes should dissuade law librarians from continuing to subscribe to a series that constitutes a duplication. 

What is the prospect of print volumes of caselaw being produced without headnotes? Not likely. I believe that some caselaw volumes in the future will include an abbreviated form of headnote, such as headings and sub-headings only. That is, editorial input will be minimal at some publishers. But some caselaw series will have complete headnotes for as long as there is a minimum number of print subscribers. That minimum will vary from publisher to publisher depending upon individual expense levels and the individual cost of capital. 

The future of headnotes is not as clear as a decision with a headnote.

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