The Context of Legal Information

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?


  1. What effect if any will the current lawsuits in both the U.S. and Canada against the legal publishers have on “They expect to be able to look under the hood, mix and match chunks of content, and create, seamlessly, something of their own”? Does copyright and IP factor in?

  2. A not al all surprisingly incisive and interesting piece of excellent comment and research, the views within which can only be supported, as they reflect undoubted insight and experience. The only element about which I wonder is the notion of context being something new.

    I would take the view that context has always been a key component of how to do legal publishing in excellent and professional ways and that context is a hallmark of a legacy of more than 200 years of such publishing. The great legal tomes, subsequently joined by the more sophisticated looseleaf services, seem to me to be characterised by their ability to bring together source content, cross-referencing, citation, with added-value expert comment and search tools, the only limitations being those of the technology of their day. Now we have the ability to add plumbing and engineering, expressed in workflow, linkage and search tools. The core strength, I believe, remains in the genius of the writing and underlying expertise, combined with the talent and experience of the publisher in inventing, building and guiding the authors output.

    All the tools and technical innovation are truly wonderful but cases are won by the expertise of lawyers whose cutting edge is derived from the publishers’ output but much more as well, legal and contextual. The better lawyer is the one who knows how and why the goal is achieved, rather than having a mechanistic body of tools to achieve a result.

    Understanding and delivering context has always been key and I am reminded that today’s Justis Publishing,,
    began its life in 1986 as Context Ltd.

    As to the future, as per Mr. O’Leary’s comments, I think we have been there for a long time, my own views on such matters having been expressed at

  3. Thanks for these thoughtful comments.
    Verna: The plaintiffs in those actions are claiming copyright in pleadings etc. drafted by them and then filed in court (thereby becoming public documents). I’m not sure that the outcome will affect the mixing and matching that may become possible in the future. On the other hand, mix ‘n match will definitely raise copyright and licensing issues; publishers will need to be mindful of this.
    Rob: Your comment sent me back to your article; excellent, thank you.
    I wonder if I was a bit unclear in my post; I thought my main point was that although the world of publishing seems to be newly enamoured of the idea of context, legal publishing has been working with that idea for a long long time.

  4. Robert Richards

    Thanks for this interesting post. I addressed context and legal informatics research in this 2010 post:

  5. Christine Kirchberger

    Thank you for a very interesting post and for mentioning my research! I agree that context has become somewhat of a buzzword, following semantics and natural language processing a few years ago. Interestingly enough, as with all buzzwords, people subsume different concepts under the term.

    In my opinion, context refers to both the innate structure of a document within the legal framework as well as the current working task of the lawyer looking for the document. Legal information retrieval systems have focused on the material for quite some time, but not focused too much on the workflow of the users and their search context (i.e. why the are looking for specific documents). In combining the two, I think, lies the future of IR. Instead of asking experts to choose a few search terms which are then compared to thousands of documents, we lift the users’ side of the query matching scale and add some additional information such as fields of interest of the user, the working task at hand, etc. This additional information goes beyond the search history of the user which is often of little relevance for the case at hand.

    I am posting some of these ideas on my blog ( and have referred to context (e.g. a few times.

    Looking forward to more discussions on context, concepts & connectivity!