A Proposal for a Free Web-Based Canadian Legal Encylopedia

One of the recommendations I made in my LLM thesis entitled Access to Law-Related Information in Canada in the Digital Age was a proposal to implement Professor Friedland’s vision from the mid 1970’s for a Canadian law-related encyclopedia that would answer real-life legal questions. In his 1975 study entitled Access to the Law, Professor Friedland concluded that the typical Canadian did not have easy access to the law and had difficulty understanding the law once accessed. One of his recommendations was to call for a legal encyclopedia for each province that would be updated regularly. The following is a description from Chapter 6 of my thesis (the page number references below are to Professor Friedland’s book):

The proposed encyclopedia would “a reference tool that will give the citizen or his advisor specific information to deal with a particular question or problem at the time that it arises” (p. 8). However, Friedland appears to acknowledge the enormous challenges in trying to publish sets of such an encyclopedia (p. 8):

Who should write them? At what level of sophistication should they be written? Should descriptive material be integrated with statutory material or should it be restricted to an introductory note? How should updating be systematized? How does one [p. 9] handle areas of law, such as contracts, that are primarily case law? Is it possible to include municipal by-laws? Should one go further than telling the layman merely what the law is and describe, for example, how to incorporate a company or draft a will or conduct one’s own legal proceedings? At what point should the reader be warned that the area is complex and a lawyer should be consulted? What training should be given to non-lawyers responsible for using the materials?

It would be a “multivolume legal encyclopedia, regularly updated, which could be directly available to those providing legal information and to citizens in public libraries and in such locations as government offices and school libraries” (p. 91). The format would be a set of binders that would take up to 5 to 6 feet of shelf space and the encyclopedia would be “comprehensive both in the areas of law covered and in the detail in which each area is covered” (p. 92). Because the law vary slightly from province to province, Friedland proposes that there would be a separate set of the encyclopedia for each of the provinces and territories with there being a limited number of cases and statutes referred to (p. 93). The information in the encyclopedia would be classified for non-lawyers by not using legal terms such as “torts”; instead, legal issues involving negligence would be dealt with within the topic that involves elements of negligence (such as motor vehicle law, trespass, etc.) (p. 93). The goal would be to have the information in a form that would be easily understandable for the average citizen (p. 95):

An attempt should be made to present the law in a way that would be useful both to a lawyer operating out of a legal clinic and to a reasonably intelligent citizen faced with, or assisting someone else with, a simple problem involving law. The combination of the lawyer and the professional writer would help ensure that both groups could understand and use the materials. An editorial committee would of course have overall responsibility for the content and style of all the materials.

In addition, “the reader would be warned when a particular matter was complex or required an analysis of a body of case law, and wherever appropriate the suggestion would be made that legal advice be obtained” (p. 96). The encyclopedia would be updated by the persons responsible for preparing that section of the encyclopedia; Friedland proposes that updates would be done every two months through the use of replacement pamphlets (p. 96). In addition, “[e]ach subject category would have its own index, and in addition there would be an index for the complete encyclopedia” (p. 96). He suggests a cost (at that time) of $300,000 for a set of the encyclopedia for one province with there being 10 subject written per year over a period of 5 years, resulting in a completed encyclopedia with 50 subjects with the cost of preparation spread over 5 years (p. 97). Friedland calls upon “a diversity of funding to help ensure the objectivity of the materials” (p. 98).

Clearly, his proposal was overly ambitious and not realistic. With the advent of the Internet, though, and with a ready supply of potential authors (i.e., reference librarians at each of the Canadian law school law libraries), it would not be that difficult to publish a free, online modified version of what was proposed by Professor Friedland. I discussed this idea in the Conclusions and Recommendations section of my thesis as Recommendation #10, set out below in modified form:

Academic and courthouse law librarians (and librarians at private law firms), through the Canadian Association of Law Libraries, would be able to coordinate both federal and provincial online guides that could go a long way towards realizing the recommendation in the Friedland study of a law-related encyclopedia for non-lawyers but at a much more realistic and sustainable level. These online guides would be free, could be written in plain English, and could explain where print resources could be found in each province. For example, the law libraries across the country could agree on the most needed guides on matters falling under federal jurisdiction and then divide up the task of preparing and updating the guides. Topics under federal jurisdiction of likely interest to most citizens would include guides on the topics of divorce, income tax, criminal law, youth criminal justice, the Charter, immigration law, intellectual property law, privacy law and administrative law. It would be easier to cooperate on the authorship of online guides for these topics, with each academic law library in Canada agreeing to publish and update guides on one or two of these topics. These guides, on topics under federal jurisdiction, could then be shared and adapted, as needed, for each province with “local” information added, depending on the resources available within a particular province.

Guides on law-related topics that fall within provincial jurisdiction could also be created without too much difficulty. And even though the laws vary from province to province, the “templates” for the guides could be shared, and in some cases, the guides would not be that different from province to province. Topics for the provincial guides that would likely be the most needed would include landlord/tenant, family law, mechanics’ liens, going to court, real estate (and buying and selling a home), traffic court, education law, administrative law, starting your own business, employment law, labour law, insurance law, municipal bylaws, occupational health and safety, privacy law, workers’ compensation, and wills and estates.

These online guides could be hosted on a single server; alternatively, if the guides produced by each law school law library were kept on their individual servers, links could be provided to each guide, regardless of its location. These guides could also be coordinated with legal aid clinics and other public interest groups, including those offered by law societies and law student legal clinics.

By dividing up the labour among the Canadian law school law libraries, the effort to keep the guides up-to-date would not be overly onerous. In addition, these guides would not necessarily be seen as a threat to the commercial law-related print and online publishers since their products would continue to service a slightly different market (and would have more extensive copyrighted sources, such as newspaper and journal databases), although many lawyers might find the free online guides to be useful.

What about it? Is this a realistic proposal? I suspect Carswell does not make a lot of money from its Canadian Encyclopedic Digest, which might explain why some of the titles/topics in that encyclopedia are horribly out-of-date (the Constitutional Law title, for example, was, until recently, only updated in 1986, shortly after the Charter was enacted!). An earlier post on SLAW mentioned the possible launch of a Halsbury’s Laws of Canada, which would be a welcome and interesting publication.

The proposal I make, however, would not necessarily be a competing product to either encyclopedia (since, presumably, my idea would not cite as much case law and would be more practical, aimed at a lay audience in addition to a law-trained audience).


  1. Ted – it’s only a start, but I was impressed by the length of the questions answered at http://www.avocat.qc.ca/faq/faq.htm.
    Québec seems further along than other jurisdictions

  2. Sounds like rather a large undertaking. Without either being for or against the idea, Ted, I think you would need to address the intended audience for these encyclopedias. If they are intended for non-lawyers to undertake their own research and take their own legal actions, then this ground has been covered by others, and the issue is a huge one for the courts, at least of this province.

    See, for instance, the BC Supreme Court Self-Help Information Centre Website at http://www.supremecourtselfhelp.bc.ca