Innovation and Case Law Reporting

 Matt Ridley wrote a book titled The Rational Optimist that was published in 2010.

Ridley is an English journalist with an education in science. In his book he is concerned with the origins of the prosperity that exists in the world, arguing that the road to prosperity began with exchanges that resulted in a benefit to both parties, including barter, a method of exchange that can be done without money. In many exchanges both parties may feel that the other is overpaying. Over time increases in exchanges resulted in specialization followed by innovation. Ridley states that the ever-increasing exchange of ideas leads to the ever increasing rate of innovation in the modern world.

Perhaps the best known example of specialization and innovation is in the field of farming. In 1790 farmers were 90% of the U.S. labour force. In 1980 farmers were 3.4% of the U.S. labour force. Ridley states that today one per cent of workers work in agriculture, “24% in industry, leaving 75% to offer movies, restaurant meals, insurance broking …” etc.

Ridley argues that trade is an element of prosperity. He says that self sufficiency leads to poverty. If a person tries to create all of his own food, shelter and clothing he is 100% occupied in these tasks and has no time to specialize. Ridley refers to nations that have tried to be self sufficient and the result is poverty. The Ming emperors demonstrated how to stifle an economy by forbidding, among other things, all trade and travel without government permission, and by requiring peasants to grow for their own consumption and not for market.

Ridley says that every nation that has tried protectionism has suffered; examples are North Korea under Kim Il Sung and China under Mao Zedong.

Innovation can destroy as well as create and it is unpredictable. Ridley states that the fields of knowledge and innovation are limitless.

I am familiar with innovation in the reporting of case law in Canada.

In the 1960s there were no provincial case law reporters except for Ontario and Quebec. The Western Weekly Reports covered all four western provinces and the Maritime Provinces Reports covered the four Atlantic provinces. In 1968 Carswell cancelled the Maritime Provinces Reports. In the 1970s Carswell commenced several topical reporters and also during the 1970s Maritime Law Book commenced three provincial reporters for the Atlantic provinces plus three provincial reporters for the Prairie provinces. The new MLB provincial reporters were:

New Brunswick Reports (2d)
Nova Scotia Reports (2d)
Newfoundland & Prince Edward Island Reports
Manitoba Reports (2d)
Saskatchewan Reports
Alberta Reports

Another innovation, paragraph numbering. I believe that Maritime Law Book was the first to add paragraph numbers to decisions published in Canadian case law reports. The numbering of paragraphs is an innovation that facilitates the search for content in a judgment.

The arrival of the computer and the Internet and their application to legal research are innovations that led to major changes in case law publishing.

Recently, the biggest innovation in case law publishing has been the creation on the Internet of several web sites where the public has free access to judicial decisions. As a result, some print case law reporters may cease publication, being the victim of innovation and change that the economist Joseph Schumpeter famously described as “creative destruction”.


  1. Doesn’t free access to the primary documents of law then free the publishers to create the value-added products we all rely on? It seems to me that getting rid of the drudgery of publishing large volumes of cases allows authors and editors to specialize in the activity we value most – interpreting and explaining the context and evolution of the law.

  2. Maritime Law Book’s record of innovation did not end with its accomplishments in print.

    In the online environment, MLB created a remarkably simple and easy to use digital research product incorporating the National Reporter System, Key Number Search, and Cases and Raw Law Search.

    I expect that is the subject of a future post by Eric Appleby who has never ceased to look for opportunities to innovate in the delivery of case law.

  3. In another universe, somewhere, CanLII and MLB have worked out something acceptable to MLB under which CanLII refers to the MLB key number system.