Law Reports – the Future

As I pack up my office at Queens, shred all the evidence, and prepare to move to Osgoode Hall, I pose a question for SLAW readers. By the year 2010, does anyone think any law library will still be subscribing to print law reporters? Myself, I think not – a view I know (and hope) will provoke a few.

I think the writing is clearly on the wall. Few law libraries in Canada now subscribe to foreign print reporters – relying on a combination of free and pay online services. Canadian reporters are the last bastion. In my view it is only a matter of time before that bastion crumbles. Our students – the lawyers, academics and judges of the future – increasingly prefer to access (and read) reports online. The cost of printed reporters continues to increase – and to eat up large amounts of diminished library funds. The judgments in those reporters are available in most cases for free via Court web-sites, with neutral citation, and through the commercial online services. They also take up vast amounts of space and take up the time of library staff to process and shelve. In my view they are not economical and, in the future, our users will see them mostly as wall-paper.


  1. As you know, Nick, I’m a supporter of your position. There may be an issue, though, about the accuracy / authenticity of the online reports — at least for a while. I think Simon Chester has some correspondence in hand that relates to this, which I’m sure he’ll post soon.

    Lexum, for example, places this disclaimer on its Supreme Court reports page:

    Please note that the decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada on this Internet site have been prepared for convenience of reference only. The official versions of decisions and reasons for decision by the Supreme Court of Canada are published in the Supreme Court Reports (S.C.R.). Despite the considerable care taken by the Supreme Court of Canada and LexUM in preparing this site, these organizations are in no way responsible for the accuracy or reliability of the information. For all purposes of interpreting and applying the law, users should consult the S.C.R.

    Clearly the chances of a screw-up are slim, and the chances of that screw-up’s being relevant and material are slimmer still. So it’s probably only the neurotic literalist positivists (NLP’s) among us who would worry. No?

  2. I think Nick is absolutely right, and I’ve linked to this post at

    Print law reporters may hang on a bit longer in the US, but I doubt we’ll be seeing them ten years from now.

  3. We cancelled all print law reporters two years ago. Last year, we pitched the paper (with a few exceptions).

    My original thought was… you can’t recover the cost of paper subscriptions, but you can with online research. And even if the percentage is small, it’s better than nothing. It turned out to be much better…

    The result – a dramatic increase in our online DB usage, and more notably, cost recovery. We were able to increase the percentage of billable online research costs significantly. Business wise, it’s been an excellent decision.

    I haven’t seen any research to support this, but it’s my gut feeling that a higher percentage of non-billable work has traditionally been done online (cursory searches?); and by forcing the move from paper to electronic, lawyers are making more of their billable research recoverable.

    My only caveat is that we have a Courthouse Library down the road. Having access to paper is a must, and we might not have been so aggressive to remove paper if it wasn’t still readily accessible.

  4. But print is not immune from errors either. See this law-lib posting at

    A story on this is on the front page Philadelphia’s legal newspaper
    today. Due to a printing error in Purdon’s, the commercial version (and
    really the only one that most Lawyers refer to) of the PA Statutes, the
    counsel in this case missed a filing deadline.

    The opinion (attached) states that “It is routine for lawyers in
    Pennsylvania to rely upon Purdon’s, as opposed to the [official] pamphlet laws, but there are times this routine must be broken. Purdon’s is not legal evidence of the official version of Pennsylvania’s pamphlet laws.”

    The opinion seems to say that commercial versions of laws should not
    necessarily be relied upon. Though something like this is extremely
    rare, how do you think this affects both the way we do research as well
    as which books we need to hold in our libraries? This could have big

    With electronic publication, the error only needs to be corrected once on the main server. Print copies have to be reprinted and the original copies discarded, with all the time and expense that entails.

  5. Hi:

    I doubt my library would cancel print subscriptions to Canadian case law reporters unless there is a complete archive made available online for free of all, say, pre-1990 decisions. And although the cost of digitizing is falling, I think it will be sometime before this is done (I hope I am wrong).

    The digitization project in Alberta of legislation is a good start.

    Why are the Supreme Court Reports not digitized or PDF’ed and put online? The cost cannot be that great (I raise this as one of 10 recommendations in my LLM thesis).


  6. Glad to see I’ve sparked a bit of a debate! Simon F, a reminder that I did say five years from now. Although I accept that there are still problems with accuracy and security I do know that they are being resolved. Those disclaimers will eventually disappear. As Jim notes, print is not immune from error either – ask legislative draftsman in any jurisdiction!
    Ted, how was Europe? I wholeheartedly support your SCR proposal and again, when one considers just HOW MUCH has been made available for free online in the last five years – I don’t think my five year timeframe rules out the possibility you refer to of a complete pre-1990 archive by 2010. Look how far we’ve come since 2000! I’m ever the optimist of course…

  7. Just to clarify. We did not remove any of our historical paper collections, and removed paper only where duplication was present and we were paying twice.

    In the future, I hope CD-ROM or an equivalent option for the outright purchase of historical collections (eg. we’re looking at the English Reports 1220 – 1865 on CD) doesn’t disappear. I’d hate to pay an annual recurring subscription for a static collection.

  8. Our situation is similar to the one mentioned above by Ted. I doubt that our caselaw reporters will disappear completely. One of those reasons is that we find ourselves being looked to as a regional repository of case law, if you will, whether we like it or not.

    The other point I keep in the back of my mind, is the price of electronic access. In the Law School environment we have free access to some large collections, but will this continue? And more specifically, if we reach a point where there are few print collections remaining, what happens to the price of electronic access? The price of electronic access has been increasing steadily over the past few years along with print prices. I’m not necessarily inclined to trust the goodwill of for profit vendors with regards to our caselaw which is essentially a resource produced by our public legal system. I do believe that the electronic form is going to become more and more prevalent, which is why I am a big fan of what they are trying to accomplish over at CanLII.

  9. Currently many litigators still distrust electronic sources. Their feelings vary:

    – some think judges don’t want copies from electronic sources in the factums;
    – some distrust research in electronic sources and feel solid research should still be based on paper, even though both the Canadian Abridgment and Canadian Encyclopedic Digest are now available electronically;
    – some prefer edited versions of case law over unedited, and so to them that means paper case law reporters.

    Recently I heard a young litigator say that he considers it “lazy” when he is handed case law from an electronic source. This concerns me because multiple copies of the same case may be printed or copied, and I wonder how much of that cost is covered by the client.

    I think it will have to come from the judges–they will have to tell us electronic is the same as paper. And even then it is going to take some big convincing.

    There is also a matter of tribunals. Again, I have heard the administrative tribunals are less likely to accept electronic case law than the courts. Again, it is this misperception that electronic is inferior to paper.

  10. An interesting analogue is that being conducted in the scientific world where the producers of knowledge (researchers and peer reviewers) object to intermediaries (scientific publishers) raising journal rates to astronomic rates to resell the producers’ work back to science libraries.
    Web-based publishing permits the disintermediation of the process.
    How this mission is standing up to lobbying by the publishers is discussed in