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Free Legal Information? Really?

When I was chatting with one of my American colleagues at this summer’s ACLEA conference, our talk turned to our competitors. We agreed that our biggest competition is the free material on the web, rather than legal resources published by any other legal publisher. (We both publish secondary legal material: practice manuals and the like.) This set me on a train of thought about the funding behind all that free legal information.

With my belief in access to justice and to legal information, I can’t help supporting initiatives to make primary legal material and legal scholarship freely available online. I think we all need to be clear about what it takes to get this done. I have a slight concern that providing free access to all this legal information feeds into the common misperception that everything on the Internet is or should be free.

The truth of the matter is that free is not really free. There’s plenty of legal information on the Internet. But it’s not really free. Someone is paying to put it there. And there’s a lot of expense associated with publishing specialized information on the Internet; technology has a significant cost associated. 

CanLII is the best free legal resource in this country. CanLII is supported by the members of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada. In other words, a portion of our Law Society fees goes to CanLII. What a great deal! I’m very happy to have a portion of my fees support this excellent resource.

Sean Hocking’s recent column addressed the funding woes of LII (legal information institute) providers around the world. He noted that LII, other than CanLII, are often funded privately, and must put an enormous effort into securing and maintaining funding from those sources. BAILII’s recent appeal for funds shows what is necessary when some of the funding dries up. A recent post on VoxPopuLII, Reaching Sustainability of Free Access to Law Initiatives, gives a fascinating insight into LII funding and sustainability.

Daniel Poulin’s informed and informative comment on Sean Hocking’s column shows that CanLII, at least, is properly funded.

Louis Mirando calls for creation of a digital collection of historical print resources (older primary law and legal scholarship). My first thought: what a great idea! My second thought: who is going to pay for it all? From what I can tell, at least initially this project will be part of the work of the Osgoode library.

We have some excellent free online legal resources in British Columbia. The best source for public legal education information is surely Clicklaw, created by our friends at Courthouse Libraries BC.

The Clicklaw website tells us: “Clicklaw is … aimed at enhancing access to justice in British Columbia. It features legal information and education, but it is not a site of laws. Instead, Clicklaw features legal information and education designed for the public from 24 contributor organizations, as well as selected others.” 

The development of Clicklaw was supported by a grant from the B.C. Law Foundation. The Law Foundation is a non-profit foundation that receives and distributes the interest on clients’ funds held in lawyers’ pooled trust accounts. These funds are distributed for projects and programs in legal education, legal research, legal aid, law reform, and law libraries.

The B.C. Legal Services Society (our legal aid provider) has an excellent family law website. The LSS is funded primarily by the provincial government; it also receives support for some projects from the B.C. Law Foundation and the Notary Foundation. 

Of course, these two examples are both public legal education sites. But I can see that a lawyer might use them as a quick refresher. 

When we’re thinking about free information online, it’s important to distinguish between primary and secondary material. Free secondary legal information is also available online in the many legal blogs now published. These blogs are usually a marketing vehicle showcasing the legal expertise of the author. They are easy to set up using an interface such as WordPress. Some blogs are marvelous; others less so. The best that can be said is that the quality is inconsistent; there is certainly no guarantee of accuracy. 

Developing and publishing authoritative secondary legal material can be very costly. Each step of the publication process: determining the needs of the market, recruiting authors, managing multiple authors, editing their work, and ensuring the accuracy of the content, comes with a price tag … and that’s before the many steps and details of the production process. Publishing that material online can be even more expensive. 

Is free material a serious threat to our online subscription products? In a column last year, I wrote about the use of wikis and other collaborative resources for legal publication. My conclusion that lawyers would continue to pay for authoritative and accurate secondary legal information hasn’t changed. But ensuring the accuracy of that information has a cost. And I continue to believe that having subscribers bear the cost of developing and publishing secondary information is still the best model for us.

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