Commercial vs. Free Databases

I’d like everyone’s feedback on an issue that arises from time to time when I talk with other research lawyers in Calgary. Until recently, it was our view that the free websites (eg. CanLII) were not very useful; their search capabilities were clumsy, their coverage was limited, and/or the scope and coverage of the database was not known. While it is likely the free databases of legal materials are improving, it is my impression, and my practice, to use the commercial databases for most of my comprehensive legal research. I would like to know what others are doing in their legal research, however, and propose a survey of sorts.

Please respond by indicating what percentage of your legal research is done on commercial, and free databases (eg. commercial: 90%/free: 10%), for a)legislative; b)caselaw;c)legal commentary. Also, please indicate if your practice is private practice (and large/medium/small firm), or government or academia. Finally, indicate where you are located (city/province), and any comments you’d like to add. If you can, please survey your colleagues and send in their responses.

I will tally up all the responses and report on them for my next post in two weeks. This may give all of us some empirical data to consider and share. I’m looking forward to responses.

Here’s my response, for starters:
Legislative research: 90% commercial/10% free;
Caselaw: 95% commercial/5 % free;
Legal commentary: 90% commercial/10% free.
I practice in a large firm, in Calgary Alberta.



  1. Our firm librarian (bless her) comments:

    My figures would be pretty close to his, but dramatically different for legislative because, for one thing, we have the benefit of e-laws. I draw a distinction between – not sure what terminology to use here – legislative and statutory? – if I think of legislative as research on the passage of laws as opposed to research on statutes. I’m also assuming that we are talking about Canadian law. For the U.S. Code, for example, I would always use commercial because I have found that the government-produced code is not always up-to-date.

    Statutory research: 20% commercial/80% free; (the commercial being for those jurisdictions, such as federal, that are not up-to-date)

    Legislative research: 10% commercial/90% free (the 10% usually being Legislative Pulse from CCH)

    Caselaw: 90% commercial/10% free; (if I’m looking for a specific case, I may go to the court website or CANLII, but usually I think people want a recognizable cite and the neutral citation is not “there? yet.

    Legal commentary: 95% commercial/5% free.

  2. And a bright articling student commented:

    For me the figures are:
    a) Legislative

    Commercial: 70%
    Free: 30%

    b) Caselaw

    Commercial: 90%
    Free: 10%

    c) Legal commentary

    Commercial: 90%
    Free: 10%

    I typically use free databases to learn about the subject-matter, discover new keywords I hadn’t thought of, and refine my search criteria to weed-out the undesirable results. Then I switch to commercial databases to access what is usually a greater breadth of material. I find that the initial run with the free databases cuts down on my learning time with the paid search significantly, but that the paid search still yields far more relevant and up-to-date hits. I should note that I find that commercial databases are usually quite up-to-date on caselaw and legislation, but that they have a significant lag time on legal commentary.

  3. And a second student writes:

    Legislative research: 95% free/5% comercial;
    Caselaw: 95% commercial/5% free;
    Legal commentary: 60% commercial/40% free (including Google)

    I practice in a large firm, in Toronto.

    BTW all my posts concern a large national firm, Toronto office.

  4. Gosh – a fourth Heenan Blaikie Toronto vote:

    Legislative research: 50% commercial / 50% free

    Caselaw: 100% commercial

    Legal commentary: 70% commercial / 30% free

  5. Well, considering CANLII has been created by the Federation of Law Societies, I feel pretty confident about the content. They have made a concerted effort to create a high-quality product and are continuing to strive for improvement. Keeping in mind that as a library manager I don’t do as much research as a reference librarian or articling student, here is my breakdown:

    Legislation research: 95% free (mostly e-laws, legislative/parliamentary websites, and CANLII) / 5% commercial (the odd current federal search on Canada Statute Citator CD-ROM)

    Case law: 50% free / 50% commercial (it would be higher on commercial end if I were doing more research)

    Legal commentary: 75% free / 25% commercial