Link Rot in Court Decisions

There is an article available through SSRN that discusses link rot in court decisions by Tina Ching (Reference Librarian, Seattle Univ. Law Library) in The Next Generation of Legal Citations: A Survey of Internet Citations in the Opinions of the Washington Supreme Court and Washington Appellate Courts, 1999-2005 [SSRN], 9 J. App. Prac. & Process 387 (2007).

As more legal research is conducted online, it is reasonable to conclude that there will be a corresponding increase in citations to the Internet by judges in their opinions. With the widespread public use of the Internet to access information along with the constant changes and impermanence of websites, citing to the Internet should be an issue of increasing concern to the legal community across the country. This paper surveys the types of Internet sources the Washington state Supreme Court and Appellate Court justices are citing. It discusses the interrelated issues of link rot and the impermanence of web pages, citation format, authentication and preservation of online electronic legal information.

Ted and Simon have discussed link rot here on Slaw, and Ted’s 2005 post provides great sources to compare to this recent research.

I performed a very quick investigation of link rot in Canadian judicial decisions. Since I had very interesting results I stopped my search almost immediately. To gather decisions with URLS I simply searched for the text “http://” in CanLII.

In R. v. S.J.L., 2009 SCC 14 (CanLII), 6 URLs are listed in the Authors cited portion of the headnote. Of these 4 are broken links and 2 are good. I found a similar prevalence in a couple of other cases I looked at.

Although my scan was not scientific by any means, I was very surprised that Ms. Ching’s research found Citations not leading to cited material occurred 64% of the time. This is pretty close to the 67% prevalence of broken links found in one 2009 SCC decision.

Perhaps it is time for a more thorough scan of judicial decisions or some guidelines for ensuring that if a URL citation is to a government document (as some of the broken were in my example), a permanent persistent link is used.


  1. Very interesting, and a really great idea for further investigation, Shaunna. I suspect that most of the broken links will prove to be to government documents or to the websites of particular courts/tribunals. This highlights the need for a stable national repository for government publications.

  2. I’ve heard the argument a number of times that this is why citing to electronic publications is not a good idea. I’ve never really bought that argument, but this kind of number really gives me pause.

    The librarians I know are always worrying about this kind of thing, too, suggesting that the lack of a stable system (whether its a unified national system or a decentralized, library-based archival system, perhaps) will cause more and more trouble going forward.

    I don’t think this issue is something that has been adequately addressed as yet as we transition away from relatively stable print media (which can be spread out as well geographically). I’ll be curious to see where we are on this in another 10 years…