Colin Lachance: $34 Well Spent

[Colin Lachance is the President of CanLII.]

In his recent column on Slaw entitled Funding the LIIs, Sean Hocking wrote of the challenges faced by BAILII, the successes of AustLII and, to the extent information was available, the various funding models pursued by other legal information institutes. In referencing CanLII, he noted:

They don’t tell us much just that “CanLII is funded by the members of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, in other words, the law societies of Canada’s provinces and territories and the Chambre des notaires du Québec.”

It’s true, our site does not tell much of our funding story, a shortcoming that will soon be remedied because ours is a story worth telling.

With your indulgence, I’m pleased to share our funding backstory and provide as well a glimpse into our future.

In the beginning there was nothing….

Well, not quite nothing.

Beginning in the late 1990’s several visionary leaders from across the country set about developing and then implementing an audacious vision of creating a Canadian virtual law library that would provide free access to primary legal materials to anyone. (The story of the people, their motivations, efforts and tribulations will have to wait for another day) CanLII’s promoters sought funding from Canada’s legal profession by way of their provincial and territorial regulatory bodies, with the hope that additional funding would eventually come from other sources.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

History has shown that CanLII’s first step was a big one in the right direction.

Recognizing from the outset the interdependency of succeeding in the CanLII project and addressing the legal profession’s interest in affordable electronic access to legal information, Canada’s law societies knew that progress required substantial and ongoing commitment. Accordingly, through their umbrella organization, the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, the 14 member societies committed in 2000 to an initial 16-month funding allocation of close to $500K. Viewed from the perspective of individual lawyer and notary members of the law societies, that worked out to approximately $7.40 per full-time-equivalent law society member.

So what did $500K buy?

When CanLII officially launched in 2001, it did so with 18 collections comprising approximately 20,000 documents.

By early 2003, with annual law society contributions now at $14 per member, CanLII featured 65 case law and statutory collections containing over 150,000 documents and the database was growing at a rate of 1000 decisions per week. As the goal of access to current information was nearly achieved, attention turned to enhancing site functionality and utility through the addition of hyperlinks between decisions, de-identification of named persons where required to meet privacy obligations, and addition of historical collections. A proposal in support of these enhancements was advanced to the Federation, and if accepted would bring annual per FTE law society member contributions to $27. I will spare you the blow-by-blow and jump to the present state.

10 years from launch, CanLII now hosts nearly 1 million documents across over 170 collections; adds over 125,000 decisions each year; and receives over 20,000 visits each day. Beyond mere usage stats, CanLII also boasts several professional grade tools such as the Reflex record for case citations, the Satal tool for point-in-time comparison of statutes, and, more recently, search-based RSS feeds and deep-linking functionality to support sophisticated research and reference practices.

Annual funding of CanLII’s core operations continues to come from the provincial and territorial law societies. The current contribution is approximately $34 per FTE law society member. In light of the benefit to the profession and the public, CanLII humbly suggests that their investment is money well spent.

In any discussion of CanLII funding, I cannot fail to mention the many other parties whose critical contributions have supported the development of a free resource that is both deep and broad. To help CanLII approach (or in some cases far exceed) a targeted case law depth of at least 10 years for superior and appellate courts, Canada’s provincial law foundations have provided substantial funding grants for the scanning, digitizing and publishing of pre-2003 case law. CanLII has also received considerable indirect financial benefit from LexUM through low cost access to leading edge technology and service as LexUM’s prior affiliation with the University of Montreal allowed it to attract support from a variety of sources and LexUM’s own passionate commitment to CanLII led to the sharing of its technological advancements. Beyond these resources, CanLII has benefitted from contributions of incalculable value from the many volunteers and supporters among its board members, law society and Federation representatives and professional advisors, and the Courts and other public agencies.

While the CanLII funding story to date is very positive, I’ve admittedly glossed over the rocky bits. The story is not entirely one of a high and harmonious correlation between the demands of its users, the ambition of its leadership and the support of its funders. Much of what is desirable and technologically possible has not been pursued for lack of funding.

What’s next?

Through a decade of investment by the legal profession, CanLII has become a robust and respected legal research tool. CanLII has room to improve in delivering on its core functionality, but its stability also allows it and its users to dream of much grander possibilities.

Law society funding at current levels could support evolutionary growth, but the demands of today’s sophisticated user of legal information and search call for development at costs and at a pace that may exceed the appetite of CanLII’s traditional funders. Moreover, responding to public demand for improved access to justice and to legal information requires that CanLII direct greater energy and resources to generating public awareness of its service and to the education of users.

CanLII’s Board of Directors is currently developing a 3 year Strategic Plan that it hopes to unveil before year-end. The Board recognizes that meeting new and growing demands will require diversification and amplification of CanLII funding.

The last word

As CanLII enters its second decade, the funding experience and lessons of LIIs from around the world will be very instructive. We hope that legal communities in other countries will similarly find inspiration in the Canadian example and support their LIIs to the fullest extent possible. There are few better ways for a lawyer to spend $34 than to unlock the legal heritage of their country and make it freely available to all citizens.


  1. I have been working on a similar system (I call Law Delta) since July. It’s wiki-based, in the hope that people will start collaborating on it – adding laws, bills, and court decisions, and, in the end, actually propose new legislation. People can vote for laws and discuss them. Systems like CanLII are not layman-friendly, which is, probably, on purpose.

    I am trying to create a truly democratic institution, rather than a simple repository, by making it easy to interact with laws. I would be very interested in your feedback, if you please.

  2. Hi Daniel,

    Law Delta sounds like an interesting project and I wish you the greatest success.

    As you are likely well aware, one of the longstanding barriers to free access to legal information has been the control of law makers (governments, courts, tribunals and other decision making bodies) over the underlying copyright of that information. CanLII’s authority to publish the information has been obtained through years of relationship building with the providers, but has also been greatly aided by SI/97-5; the Reproduction of Federal Law Order (reproduced below). Royalty and permission free authority to reproduce federal law ensures its dissemination and allows organizations such as ours and yours to assist citizens in better understanding the laws that govern them.

    The federal order is a great starting point, but so much more is possible. Most obviously, why not provincial and territorial orders similarly providing royalty and permission free authority to reproduce law? While most courts and Queen’s Printers are highly accommodating of CanLII’s efforts to make the law more widely available, there remain a handful who seek to impose conditions, limitations and even direct fees on CanLII. Such actions are not only out-of-sync with the fundamental objective of ensuring law is widely known and accessible without impediment, but also with the growing movement of governments at all levels to provide open access to government data.

    I could go on for a while, but I will close by emphasizing that CanLII and similar institutions around the world (see have signed on to the Declaration on Free Access to Law precisely because they believe that bringing legal information to the people promotes access to justice and the rule of law. There is plenty of room for others to contribute to these objectives in unique ways.

    Again, please accept our best wishes for your success.

    Reproduction of Federal Law Order

    Registration 1997-01-08
    Reproduction of Federal Law Order
    P.C. 1996-1995 1996-12-19

    Whereas it is of fundamental importance to a democratic society that its law be widely known and that its citizens have unimpeded access to that law;

    And whereas the Government of Canada wishes to facilitate access to its law by licensing the reproduction of federal law without charge or permission;

    Therefore His Excellency the Governor General in Council, on the recommendation of the Minister of Canadian Heritage, the Minister of Industry, the Minister of Public Works and Government Services, the Minister of Justice and the Treasury Board, hereby makes the annexed Reproduction of Federal Law Order.

    Anyone may, without charge or request for permission, reproduce enactments and consolidations of enactments of the Government of Canada, and decisions and reasons for decisions of federally-constituted courts and administrative tribunals, provided due diligence is exercised in ensuring the accuracy of the materials reproduced and the reproduction is not represented as an official version.


  3. David Collier-Brown

    I just looked at Law Delta, and immediately signed up. –dave

  4. Gentlemen,

    thank you very much for your kind attention to my project.

    Mr. Lachance, the barriers you mentioned are very noticeable even in the way the texts are coded, though it’s much trickier in US. But time is on our side. I wholeheartedly agree with your objectives, and hope that our efforts will stir up public interest in law (through making it easy to access), and, maybe, bring about direct public participation in lawmaking in our lifetimes.

    I have a proposal that can benefit both organizations and further our causes. Please, don’t feel obliged, but I’d appreciate if you’d respond to