How CanLII Can Respond as the Incremental Cost of Primary Law in Canada Moves Toward Zero

Author: Sarah Sutherland Guest Blogger

The continued development of CanLII into a comprehensive source for primary legal information has created an environment where, over time, the incremental cost of primary legal information in Canada will deviate toward zero. This has important implications for both commercial and non-profit legal publishers in Canada, because it will disrupt current business models as clients continue to become more unwilling to pay for this content at existing rates. This change will create particular opportunities for CanLII to leverage its position as the provider of free information in ways that are not open to those with a fee based, closed access model.

It appears the decision makers at CanLII have come to a similar conclusion, as they have been developing initiatives outside their previously existing programs for some time, such as the introduction of secondary content and increased provision of translations of important judgements. The major commercial publishers in Canada also appear to be preparing for this environment with an ongoing emphasis on provision of products designed to be integrated into workflow, such as LexisNexis’ Quicklaw for Microsoft Office and Carswell’s Case Notebook, instead of stand alone research products such as the legacy Quicklaw and Westlaw Canada web platforms. This strategy would seem to have as its aim a decreased reliance on primary law as a primary revenue generator as it becomes increasingly commoditized.

Initiatives to increase the amount and kinds of data available from CanLII are laudable and should be continued. However, the degree of success CanLII has had in creating a viable competitor to commercial data sources for provision of primary law means that it may be time to start looking at ways to better leverage its dataset in new ways. This is why CanLII’s new API is such an exciting initiative: as it develops, it can provide the means for external individuals and organizations to create applications for it. These developments could be aimed at workflow, like the new products being developed by commercial publishers, or they could have any number of other goals driven by developers’ interests and imaginations, whether they are readily commercializable or not.

To get an idea of the scope of what will be possible it is worth looking at some of the developments that the City of Vancouver’s decision to open their data has enabled. That they may not be commercializable doesn’t mean that they may not nevertheless be useful, eye opening, interesting, or just beautiful. It will be interesting to see what the legal equivalent is to always being reminded when to take out one’s garbage or where the free parking is near to a destination.

There are large developer communities working with data APIs and software development both inside and outside the legal discipline; however, there are few who are looking at legal information in a free or open way. This is partly because software developers working in the legal space tend to work for commercial legal publishers or as consultants for other organizations, and partly this is because there have been few freely available data sources providing information with liberal licensing or in machine accessible formats. This creates an excellent opportunity for CanLII to start working with like minded people both inside and outside the legal industry to leverage expertise and create a community of developers who can create commercial and free applications based on its dataset. These applications can be focused at both the public and the legal industry — furthering CanLII’s mandate to enhance free access to the law for the legal profession and the public.

This is important because it will allow the kinds of forward looking applications that will benefit legal practitioners and the public without CanLII as an organization having to do the work to make it happen or prioritize ideas for development. Instead, those connected with CanLII can work to develop a community and provide support for development of expertise then release control of the outcome, facilitating a flowering of innovation and the development of free and commercial products based on CanLII’s dataset.

It is interesting to speculate how the study of law would benefit from some of the techniques developed in other disciplines which have been used to analyze topics such as Agatha Christie’s mental health and are now being synthesized and published in book form. As CanLII’s API at the initial stage of its development is unlikely to provide access to the level of detail that would allow for high level analysis of legal content or data visualizations using dynamic linked data, it is important that CanLII be open to providing usable datasets in machine readable format now, so that this research can start.

Some proposals will never be acted upon due to issues such as available resources, culture, and concerns about security of information within organizations. This is not a good reason to not propose them and explore them as a community. Different proposals can be initiated with differing degrees of closeness and mentorship from CanLII staff and volunteers. Meetings can be held at conferences, in different cities, and virtually to explore opportunities and create connections. The best outcome is that a vibrant, independent community of people interested in exploring the ways technology can enhance the practice of law and legal scholarship through better integration of legal information with other information and applications for commercial, scholarly, and personal purposes.

Sarah Sutherland is the manager of library services at a national law firm. Previously she has worked for governments at the provincial and federal levels and the Law Society of Saskatchewan Libraries. She is currently interested in exploring IT applications for analyzing legal information.

Twitter: @parallaxinfo


  1. CanLII isn’t actually free – a part of the fees each lawyer in Canada pays each year goes towards CanLII, which adds up to a lot of money. And CanLII does get outside funding. I’m not sure if any of the outside funding comes from government, but if it does, it means we are all paying for it.

  2. Sarah,
    Thank you for the insights and advice. CanLII’s work with others such as Lancaster House and Maritime Law Book is evidence of the organization’s view that working with others is an important part of facilitating free access to law. The API is a natural step down that path, but as you point out, there are more potential steps ahead.

    You are correct to note that CanLII’s funding comes from Canadian lawyers. It amounts to approximately $35 per year.

    While up slightly from the $34 described in this summer 2011 article, I hope you will agree that it still represents one of the best investments lawyers (and Quebec notaries) can make in support of their professional activities and in support of access to justice for all Canadians.

    CanLII is not free to operate and the funding that comes the law societies is needed and greatly appreciated. Similarly, the ongoing support of the courts, governments and other content sources are essential to free access to law in Canada.

    Personally, I believe that lawyers and law societies would be well served reminding themselves and others of this important financial contribution. In CanLII’s survey of lawyers last year, we were surprised to see that less than half of respondents knew they were to be thanked for CanLII’s existence. (see pdf at page 20)

    While CanLII has received project-based funding from provincial law foundations, we do not receive government money. That said, if the opportunity arose to pursue government funding for specific projects that support the public interest, we would not hesitate to do so.

    Prior to the launch of the API we advised the Federation of Law Societies as well as all provincial and territorial law societies of our plans and the purpose. They were quite supportive. The tool presents an opportunity to further expand the value and utility of the legal resources that they, through member dues, fund, and it will do so at no additional cost. In that sense, the incremental cost is quite low.

    With this background in mind, I might suggest that one important take-away from Sarah’s article
    is that having invested in CanLII’s creation and success, the legal community has a new opportunity to reap additional fruits of this investment.

    Colin Lachance

  3. David Collier-Brown

    CanLII seems to be approaching the status of a “universal good”, like the Eddystone Light, and like some early lighthouses, is paid for by a subscription from its community.

    Congratulations to its creators and supporters: making it available via an API is a forward-looking step, and, IMHO, will make it attractive to the “large data” community.


  4. If CanLii’s dataset includes the original source content of primary legal information, wouldn’t the content owners have to allow any “flowering of innovation” and “development of free and commercial products” based on it?

  5. R Jones: The original judgments and other legal information may not be their original content, but certainly they and/or their service providers would still retain all applicable rights to the indexing and search technologies used for the service.