What does context mean for legal information? “Context” is one of the latest buzzwords in the world of publishing. In a new online collection of essays, Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto, Brian O’Leary exhorts us to consider context when we are developing content. He defines context as “tagged content, research, footnoted links, sources, and audio and video background, as well as title-level metadata”. Although his focus is trade publishing, his ideas apply to legal publishing as well.
Christine Kirchberger, lecturer and doctoral candidate at Stockholm University, is working on a doctoral dissertation entitled “Legal information as a tool—Where legal sources meet technology and their users”. She tells us “creating context in legal information retrieval will be one of the main tasks in the 21st century.”
How does context apply to the specialized world of legal publishing? Most legal publications, whether a primary or secondary source, are already a mass of context. We may not immediately identify it as such because it goes to the core of our legal training (in other words, we take these ideas on board in the first term of law school and never look back).
Understanding context is critical to determining whether a statement of the law is authoritative, persuasive, or even relevant. Understanding context helps us provide reliable advice to our clients; for example, what is the governing legislation? Has it been recently amended? Are any amendments pending? Is the government reviewing the legislation? How about the law reform commission? This type of information is usually included in a secondary source.
We’ve developed tools or shortcuts to indicate the context of legal information. Think of all the information contained in a case citation: not only the parties, but when (how recent is this decision?), where (jurisdiction: does this apply in my province or country?), and level of court (who is bound by this decision?). Sometimes we include the name of the judge; this information itself can provide excellent context. For Supreme Court of Canada or Court of Appeal decisions we usually indicate whether the decision came from the whole court or whether the court was split; if so, who was in the majority and who was in dissent. All this context helps us understand whether the case or statute applies or is relevant to a client’s problem.
There’s another important source of context as well: how has the case been treated in other cases? Not so very long ago, the BC Courthouse Library noted up cases in the margins of the printed reports. The big online legal research services have had this feature for many years; our wonderful CanLII now provides a note-up service as well. (When Colin Lachance inserted links to CanLII in a Wikipedia article about the Criminal Code, he was providing context.)
We provide plenty of context when we are creating secondary sources; our authors indicate the leading cases and applicable legislation; they often also note problems with the law. We also provide further context with glossaries, forms and precedents, and checklists.
When we started publishing secondary legal material online, it was obvious to include links to context. A large part of the appeal of publishing legal information online has been the ability to provide even more context, not only by linking to primary sources, but also by applying taxonomies and by linking related resources. For instance, case and statute citators are built into CLEBC online publications; when you click on a case link, not only are you directed to the primary law, but you can also see where else within the CLEBC library that case or statue is discussed.
Our challenge is to provide content in a format where the context is enhanced even further; for instance, by deeper and richer tagging so related content can be found more easily.
We can also liberate ourselves from constraints of print. For instance, wouldn’t it be excellent to include video demonstrations of effective advocacy or introduction of evidence in a trial practice handbook?
Can we pull it all together into one seamless and easy-to-use service? Should we make the information available in smaller pieces? Or should we offer the choice? There’s persuasive view that legal information consumers shouldn’t be forced to subscribe to one large service (particularly where you can’t subscribe to one service unless you also subscribe to the other), and that information should also be available in smaller pieces.
But what do we do with all this context? Here’s a challenging statement from Brian O’Leary:
Many current audiences (and all future ones) live in an open and accessible environment. They expect to be able to look under the hood, mix and match chunks of content, and create, seamlessly, something of their own.
Is this the future of legal publishing? And what will our business model be?