The Birth of Quicklaw

My next door neighbour at Heenan Blaikie, Ryan Teschner lent me this morning a history of the Queen’s Law School at 50 – “Let Right Be Done”:
A History of the Faculty of Law at Queen’s University by Professor Mark D. Walters
I was very pleased to see 3 pages about the early days of computerized legal research in Common Law Canada, which all started at KingstonThe story of Datum/Soquij is for another day..
The Genesis of Quicklaw
In October 1972, it was reported that a sense of manic chaos reigned in the house at 140 Beverly Street, just one block from the Queen’s campus: “anxious-looking individuals” paraded through the house and everywhere were machines producing “nothing but paper — paper that overflows filing cabinets, crawls out of cardboard boxes, submerges work desks and creeps across floor space.”Martin Jones, “Queen’s University Investigation of Computing & Law” The Queen’s Journal (31 October 1972) 10 In fact, this chaos was the QUIC-LAW project, “a unique and significant project,” it was said, “that promises to improve the quality of legal services throughout the world” by providing lawyers with instant computer access to legal resources. The mastermind behind the project was Queen’s law professor Hugh Lawford, and over time the project would meet and surpass these ambitious objectives.
Lawford’s interest in developing searchable computer databases for legal materials developed in the mid-1960s, and by September 1968, he had entered into discussions with I.B.M. to establish a project of “considerable proportions.”Queen’s Law Faculty Board Minutes, 105th Meeting (9 September 1968) (Dean Soberman’s expression). Queen’s Law Faculty Board Minutes, 108th Meeting (28 October 1968) (Lawford reports on “the progress of negotiations with I.B.M.”). A deal was finalized, and by the end of that year Lawford and Dick von Briesen, a visiting professor in the law school, were running a $2.5 million project on the legal applications of computer technology, funded jointly by Queen’s University, I.B.M. and the federal government.

QUIC/LAW — the acronym for Queen’s University Institute for Computing and Law — showed some early signs of success, but the issue of continued university funding soon became controversial. Lawford argued that if Queen’s did not continue to support the project, a purely commercial entity would develop the technology, and equitable access to it might be threatened.Hugh Lawford, Keith Latta & Richard von Briesen, The QUIC/LAW System of Editing and Retrieving Legal Documents (Kingston, Ont.: Queen’s University, 1970) at 1, 7-8. “The whole point of computerized information systems is to enable more people to have access to more information more quickly,” Lawford stated in 1970, and it would be “unfortunate” if the effect of computerizing information was “to make it into a valuable commodity and to restrict rather than expand its use.”“Notes for a Speech by Professor Hugh Lawford, Director, QUIC/LAW Project, Queen’s University on Wednesday, September 16, 1970” Queen’s Library, W.D. Jordan Special Collections – Lorne Pierce, Canada Pamphlet 1970 no. 021, 3. By 1973, however, I.B.M., the government and the university had withdrawn support for the project, and Lawford and von Briesen had established their own company, “QL Systems,” to pursue what they feared someone else would pursue — the commercial computerization of the lawBill Rogers, “Quicklaw founder a trailblazer in online legal research — Hugh Lawford’s on-line research database turns 25” The Lawyers Weekly 18:24 (30 October 1998)..

One year later, the system was ready for a trial run. It was the computer serviceman making the final installation of the equipment who put the first question to the new system: “[W]asn’t there a case where a cow was struck by a car driving up a hilly, winding road?”
Lawford doubted whether his system could produce the answer on the basis of such limited information, but he typed in the question anyway. Within fifteen seconds he had the answer: Fleming v. Atkinson, a case decided by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1959Lee Belland, “Computer law service not cowed by any question” The Toronto Star (25 January 1974) C9. Fleming v. Atkinson is reported at [1959] S.C.R. 513..Legal research would never be the same again.

In 1979 the new technology was made available to students at Queen’s: a computer terminal was placed in the library to permit access to the QL databaseMemorandum from Dean Adell to Law Students, “Re: Use of QL Systems terminal in Law Library” (6 November 1979) QA MAM Papers 1/3.. By 1989, the law library had a computer lab with 24 workstations and with access to various databases, QL included.

Associate Dean and Chief Law Librarian Denis Marshall explained in 1992: “University mainframe computers throughout North America are linked together by a series of regional communications networks known collectively as the Internet” — a reminder of just how quickly things have evolved“Trends and Technology in the Law Library” Queen’s Law Reports (Winter 1992) 5..

The QL system was original and hugely successful. Eventually Lawford sold the rights to the concept to the massive West Publishing Company in the United States, and it was used in the development of the “Westlaw” legal database. QL Systems was re-incorporated as Quicklaw Inc. in 1999 and merged with LexisNexis Butterworths Canada in 2002, with Lawford continuing as C.E.O. until 2004“Quicklaw founder Lawford retiring” The Lawyers Weekly 24:3 (21 May 2004). Lawford remained a member of the law faculty until he retired in 1999.

In recognition of his contributions to Canadian legal publishing, the Canadian Association of Law Libraries awards the Hugh Lawford Award for Excellence in Legal Publishing each year.

Homenaje a Hugh
Hugh Lawford


  1. It is great to see Queen’s acknowledging Hugh Lawford in an official history in the significant role he played in Quicklaw. It should be acknowledged that there were a couple of other players in the early days, notably Keith Latta, who was also appointed to the faculty at Queens in 1968 and continued until 1971, then ceased to be involved under sensational circumstanes. See Latta v. London Life (1977 Alta. Sup Ct.). Another key player Professor Richard von Briesen, also appointed to Queens, who provided all important technical expertise. There is a concise, but well-documented account of this by my colleague John Davis in “The Digital Storage, Retrieval, and Transmission of Case Reports in Canada: a brief history” Law Reporting and Legal Publishing in Canada, CALL/ACBD Occasional Paper #2 (1997).

    However, I think most would agree that Hugh Lawford was synonymous with the success of Quicklaw and Queen’s, and the Canadian legal community, should be proud of his contributions and achievements.

  2. I can vividly remember an occasion when, in the Osgoode library, I tested this new system along with Marianne Rogers. We decided we’d do what we could to make it produce the Drybones decision; and I have to say we failed: it would not cough that puppy up no matter what we asked for. This was, of course, part of the early testing of QL — what we’d now call an alpha version, perhaps. I wasn’t impressed. But then neither was I clued in to what was about to happen to legal research…

  3. I would like to thank Neil Campbell for mentioning my name in connection with the origins of the QuicLaw project at Queen’s. I do not know a Neil Campbell so his comments are unsolicited.

    Hugh Lawford and I go back a long way. We were close friends at the U of A law school in Edmonton during the 1950’s. After graduating in 1955, he went off to Oxford and subsequently was appointed to the Faculty of Law at Queen’s. I entered the public practice of law.

    About 1964 I became interested in the newly developing world of “computers” and the potential for computer-assisted law research – now known as computer information technology. I began to imagine a system where a massive database of case law and statutes could be stored on newly developed magnetic disk storage, and a program could be developed that would enable the full-text searching of this database using keywords, both factual and legal, and utilizing boolean logic. The “hits” could be displayed, full-text, on a computer monitor screen and printed on a connected printer.

    In 1965 I established a computer services office in Edmonton with the most current hardware, offering mainly computer accounting services. But my main objective was to “play around” with the concept of computer-assisted law research. By 1966 I had developed a working model of such a system using for demo purposes a small database of case headnotes. The first public demos of the system were the subject of articles in various publications including TIME Magazine and Reader’s Digest.

    At the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Bar Association in 1966 at Winnipeg I presented a paper covering my research and outlining my concept of the future potential of “computers and the law.” I predicted that within 10 years there would be computer terminals in law libraries, law offices, judge’s chambers, etc., with instant access to huge databases of full-text law reports and statutes. I was wrong. It took more years than I predicted. (After presenting my paper I was approached by a number of prominent lawyers who asked sarcastically what I was smoking these days.)

    Because of the massive amount of law reports required to make the database a credible source of information, I felt that, initially, conversion to “machine-readable” data of headnotes was feasible. Considerable funding would eventually be required to convert the full-text of relevant law reports. As Canada Law Book of Toronto owned copyright of many of the law reports, I began negotiations with CLB regarding use of this material. Their lawyers visited Edmonton and were impressed with demos of the working model.

    A short time after my arrangements with CLB started, they received a call from a law professor at Queen’s – my old buddy, Hugh Lawford. He stated that there was interest at Queen’s in the potential for computer-assisted legal research and wanted to discuss the matter of copyright. They informed him that they were already working with a lawyer at Edmonton in this area of computer information technology and had a working model already developed. Hugh obtained the name of the lawyer and telephoned me – we had not been in touch for some years. He asked whether I would consider an appointment as full professor of law at Queen’s with tenure, and an appointment as co-director of a new research project which would be called QuicLaw. (We agreed that there was no point in two guys from Edmonton, from working-class families, separately attempting to invent a new wheel.) As the Mafia would say, I was made an offer I could not refuse.

    The account of an early demo of the QuicLaw sytem in the article is not quite correct – it is obviously based in part on the following incident. I was there. The Department of Justice was a funder of the original research. A group of VIP’s from Ottawa came to Kingston about 1970 to check on our progress.

    It was suggested that one of the group, who were gathered around the terminal, sit down at the computer terminal and try a search. He started to decline saying that he knew nothing about computers. We insisted he sit at the terminal and asked what type of legal precedent he would like to search for. Much to my dismay he said – what about a case where a person driving a car in a rural area collided with a cow and claimed damages. I pointed out that our database at that time only included decisions from the Supreme Court of Canada and it was unlikely that there would be such a case.

    However, he was asked to type in various keywords such as motor vehicle, country road, cow, cattle, livestock, collision, damage, etc. The system displayed a Supreme Court case with the headnote summary: The plaintiff was driving his motor vehicle along a country road when he collided with a stray cow and suffered damages … etc.

    The Ottawa official stared at the terminal screen – the room was completely silent. I was standing next to him and he slowly turned and said, “By God, I think you have something here!” (One of the great moments in history.)

    My old buddy from law school in the 1950’s, Hugh Lawford, deserves full credit for the eventual success of the project. His intelligence and dogged determination to “keep the dream alive” over the years when it appeared that funding problems would end the dream, made all things possible. Hugh’s name in the history of computer information technology should some day be included with names such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. (Unfortunately, Hugh and I have not been in contact for over 30 years. )

    I am now 79 years of age, still working with computers every day, mainly in the area of computer-based accounting systems. I often think of those exciting days from 1968 to 1971 when I was involved with the beginnings of the QuicLaw project:

    “By God, I think you have something here!”

  4. That is a real voice from the past. We often heard of Professor Latta’s contribution when Stephen Skelly and other CLIC types were talking about the early days of computers and the law in Canada. This is now almost thirty years ago.
    But never until this moment, had I heard from the third member of the QL troika. I hope that John Lawford passes this exchange on to his father, Hugh.

  5. It was a joy to read the various comments regarding QuicLaw. I should mention, as one who owes his IT career to QickLaw, that the contributions of Dick Von Briesen should not be overlooked. Here was a “towering” figure both literally and intellectually who had taught himself computers without any formal education in the area. Both Hugh and Dick decided they would hire an engineer with little computing expertise in 1974 and that’s how I started in the computing business. The first year I can remember learning more than I probably ever learned in my entire life. Dick took me to the computer terminal and showed me a “bug” in the search system. He said something like “you need to fix this”. So, I asked where the documentation was for the system and he smiled and pointed at his head saying “it’s all up here right now – we haven’t had time to document anything”.

    Anyway, the next 2 years were some of the most challenging and satisfying times of my life as I learned more and more about QickLaw, primarily from Dick. I fixed bugs, wrote enhancements, went to West Publishing to install our system there. Needless to say, I never did go back to practising engineering!

    Thanks Dick and Hugh ..