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.