The Incorporated Council of Law Reporting is an interesting publisher, established in 1865 by the legal profession in Great Britain, to bring some order to the then somewhat chaotic world of law reporting. Before this time, English law reports, now known as Nominate Reports, were produced on an individual basis by barristers, with a series lasting from one or two volumes, to the working life of the author barrister. Series varied in standard, layout and structure.
The ICLR oversaw the introduction of an orderly reporting system with the creation of The Law Reports, as the series that would report judicial decisions from the ‘Superior and appellate courts of England and Wales’. The Nominate Reports were collected together and republished as the English Reports, containing cases from 1220 to 1866 – although not all cases were included, as outlined in an article by Glanville Williams in the Cambridge Law Journal ( 7 CLJ 261).
Although there are no official authorised reports in England and Wales, in a practice direction ( 1 WLR 825) the Law Reports are named as the preferred source, ahead of the Weekly Law Reports and the All England Law Reports. Now all this background is actually leading somewhere. On October 18, there was an official launch by the ICLR for their online version of their publications, principally The Law Reports. It was a noteworthy event, held in Middle Temple Hall and guests included many High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court judges, as well as leading barristers, academics, law librarians and other legal practitioners. The new service was being demonstrated on terminals in the Hall, and I overheard some of the older barristers marvelling at the ease with which one could locate and cross reference a case. It made me wonder what they had been using up to now to locate cases online – if anything!
To be fair, the new service appears to be aimed at individual members of the bar rather than at libraries and law firms. These online reports are already available in html or pdf version via Lexis, Justis or Westlaw, and have all the value added editorial features offered in those databases. However, because of their cost, these databases are usually beyond the reach of individual barristers, and even sets of chambers find the subscriptions to Westlaw, Justis or Lexis too expensive, and rely on their Inn libraries to subscribe. So in this way the ICLR service will fill a gap for those who want to search, cross reference, keep or read the final version of a case, rather than the initial judgment that can be found free of charge on Bailii without any of the editorial that is provided by database aggregators.
Features of the service include a ‘hover’ text box that references relevant cases, legislation or treaties, a link to the ICLRs citator/index card service which provides subject matter, appellate history and cases considered. There is also a briefcase tool which allows a collection of authorities to be stored in one location for reference at a later date. It is a useful tool, but not ground breaking in its use of the technology.
Our hope is that ICLR decides to maintain its ties with the existing aggregators, so that in organisations subscribing to these resources will continue to have The Law Reports on hand. As an aside – the first digitised version of the ICLRs was produced by a commercial provider, Justis (the same people who provide the only online version of the International Law Reports). Let’s just hope that the ICLR do not decide to follow in the footsteps of other publishers who have decided to withdraw from aggregators and try to capture their own market niche. This is a very unhappy trend for cash strapped libraries!
Of added interest was the brief speech made by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge (yes, that really is his name) who observed that the advantage of The Law Reports is that they are selected for the legal issues they raise. He was paraphrased thus:
It remains the case that too much rather than too little law is reported. The incompetent advocate, said his Lordship, is the one who confuses weight with authority. The competent advocate, on the other hand, is the one who directs the court only to those cases that really matter. Sometimes less is more. Selectivity in reportage has been ICLR’s guiding principle since its establishment in the mid-Victorian era and remains so to this day.
Lord Judge may not speak for all members of the judiciary, but in an age where even in the UK many more cases are available because courts send their judgments to free online services such as Bailii, it is worth remembering that not all that is reported has equal standing.