Now that I am retired and no longer have access to comprehensive fee-based law databases, I have been using a variety of free open access sites. You may be aware of these already, but I want to share what I have learned about some of these very useful sources.
One of my first go-to sites is the Guide to Law Online (GLO.) This portal is compiled by the Law Library of Congress Public Services Division and serves as a selective annotated guide to sources of online information on government and law. The compilers state that “emphasis wherever possible has been on sites offering the full texts of laws, regulations, and court decisions, along with commentary from lawyers writing primarily for other lawyers. Materials related to law and government, that were written by or for lay persons also have been included, as have government sites providing general information.”
Most of the time I use the GLO for accessing U.S. law, primarily for its detailed links to each of the Federal Courts’ web sites. However it is extremely comprehensive in its coverage of a full spectrum of jurisdictions from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. According to a recent post to the Law Library of Congress’s In Custodia Legis blog, their Guide to Law Online was the most visited page on the entire site in 2012. Many of their pages point to GlobaLex: the NYU site that contains a variety of very useful guides and articles about International, Comparative and Foreign Law. This would be a good place to find a full introduction to the law of a specific country. Another place that would be extremely useful for researching the law of a variety of countries is the World Legal Information Institute (WorldLII.,) which describes itself as “a free, independent and non-profit global legal research facility developed collaboratively by … Legal Information Institutes [including the Canadian Legal Information Institute] and other organisations.”
The Library of Congress also hosts Congress.gov which is rapidly emerging as a model for U.S. government sites. I have not used it as often as the GLO due to my current research focus on case law, but I am impressed with what I find when I do. The site’s About section explains that “Congress.gov is in an initial beta phase with plans to transform the Library of Congress’s existing congressional information system into a modern, durable and user-friendly resource. Eventually, it will incorporate all of the information available on THOMAS.gov.” So far its clean design includes a search box at the top of the screen, followed by a summary of most viewed bills. Below that are sections leading to current legislative activities and current members of Congress. A right sidebar includes nine videos on the U.S. legislative process. In late January, 2013, Congress.gov added access to the Congressional Record from the start of the 112th Congress in 2011 through the current issue. Future plans include adding earlier volumes back to 1994.
A third site that I use frequently is the U.S. Government Printing Office’s Federal Digital System (FDsys) which “provides free online access to official publications from all three branches of the Federal Government.” These publications include Congressional Bills, Congressional Documents, the Congressional Record, the annotated Constitution, the Public Papers of the Presidents, the United States Code, and selected United States Court Opinions (from PACER.) Most of these documents are authenticated, digitally signed PDFs that are preserved by the G.P.O. Searching can be done across a broad range of publications using a single search box or an advanced search template.
One major limitation to many of the above sites is that they seldom include material published before the 1980s. Therefore when I do historical research, I often turn to HathiTrust Digital Library. This site “is a partnership of major research institutions and libraries working to ensure that the cultural record is preserved and accessible long into the future.” The site contains over ten and a half million volumes on a wide-range of topics and in a variety of languages. You can search through them by bibliographic information (e.g. United States Reports) or in full-text. The advanced full-text search can be used for exact phrases and can be limited by both language and format. You can also limit your search to those books that are available in full view, which includes books in the public domain and out of copyright. You can download a page or an entire book. The entire site is an awesome resource.
As soon as I finished this piece, I saw another blog post on In Custodia Legis . The authors covered four additional sources in their post How to Locate Free Case Law on the Internet . Any of these would be a good place to start researching U.S. case law.
So are you ready to try using some of these resources and adding to your research repertoire? Moreover all of them point to other useful resources too numerous to list in a short blog post. The price is right and you may be surprised at the variety of free material that is out there.