Legal research is often the bane of a criminal lawyers’ existence. Whenever I glance at the mountain of paperwork that forms the spine of a civil case I give a reassuring nod of my head secure in my early career decision to abandon corporate commercial litigation for the more fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants lifestyle of a criminal barrister.
And yet, arriving in court without a meticulously researched legal position is less fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants and more akin to showing up before the bench without any trousers at all.
Sentencing law in particular raises a unique challenge for the busy criminal practitioner. While textbooks can provide for interesting intellectual diversions and a deep discourse on first principles, the rapid pace of change coupled with a nearly infinite number of aggravating or mitigating variables that are in a constant state of flux makes the internet the preferred destination for sentencing research. Services like Quicklaw and eCarswell provide a vast depth of decisions to mine. It can often be an overwhelming challenge to design uniquely customized search terms that yield sentencing caselaw on point with the specific factors alive in a given case. Search results typically have to be vetted down dramatically until you are left with the three or four key cases that actually stand on all-fours with your client’s situation.
Enter a new contender in the field of online research, Rangefindr.
Rangefindr’s strength lies in its limited scope. Rather than trying to oust the Quicklaw juggernaut from your research toolbox Rangefindr aims to be the Allan key – a simple but incredibly useful tool for a specific niche product (finding the appropriate range of sentence a criminal offence as opposed to assembling boxes of Ikea furniture).
The level of granularity available within the search page is the really novel and exciting part of the project. Users can tick off box by box under eleven different headings each with dozens of sub-groupings of pre-populated easy-to-view factors to create a deeply customized search. Looking for aggravated assault cases in which an aboriginal offender suffering from an anxiety disorder uses a knife against a pregnant complainant but cooperates with police upon arrest and was under restrictive bail conditions awaiting sentencing? How about finding cases that discuss the immigration consequences on a plea after waiving the preliminary inquiry for your fraud over $5000 case in which your manic depressive client came from a disadvantaged background but defrauded an elderly complainant? Each of the bolded and italicized terms I’ve just mentioned are actual boxes you can check off in the search engine to generate staggeringly unique fact situations.
The engine returns results in real time as you narrow your search. The bottom third of the screen instantly displays how many cases fit your current search criteria and even breaks those cases down further by categorizing the hits into discharges (conditional and absolute), probation, conditional sentences, intermittent sentences, fines, and imprisonment. This allows at-a-glance assessment of your current search and lets you immediately see the impact of adding or subtracting a particular factor from your search construct. Removing gambling addiction from your list of accused conditions? You will instantly see number of conditional sentence cases drop off. It’s a fantastically efficient feedback loop that doesn’t even require you to open the text of the case to get a good feel for the range of sentence facing your client.
Clicking on the “show me these cases” tab in the lower right corner loads a new screen with all your returned cases. Each entry has a header with case name, Judge, date, and jurisdiction clearly and easily displayed at the top followed by a listing of the offences in the case lined up with their corresponding sentence. Each case box ends with a simple summary of the total sentence. Cases can be sorted easily chronologically, by highest sentence, by lowest sentence, by level of court, or by judge if you’re trying to discover whether your particular jurist is heavy-hitter (pro tip: that’s a question you should have researched before the sentencing stage). The right side of the screen lets you either view or download the full text of the case with a single click. The whole set-up has the feel of a sentencing assignment just handed back to you by the firm’s most thorough articling student.
The fly in the ointment is the scope of the pool of precedents from which Rangefindr is drawing its results. Get too click-happy with the myriad search boxes and you quickly watch your returned results shrink in real time as the screen updates to display the tagged matches. At this stage, the database purports to draw from every post-2000 appellate decision available on Canlii as well as other unnamed databases though my gut instinct after experimenting with a variety of searches leaves me wondering whether the pool is in fact somewhat shallower than that. The relatively small number of cases means that building a search with anything more than a few of the most common variables yields few, if any, results. Matthew Oleynik, the brain behind Rangefindr, assures me that he is building the depth of the database regularly and hopes to expand from appellate decisions to include every reported sentencing judgment from 2000 onward while also adding more and more unreported decisions that he is collecting from individual lawyers and Criminal Lawyers Associations. Growing the database in this way is key to the value proposition of the search engine. As the breadth of cases increases, the strength of Rangefindr’s detailed tagging and unique search construct has the potential to pay big dividends to lawyers looking to streamline their sentencing research.
The service is currently priced at a $29/mth “introductory rate” for members of the Criminal Lawyers Association but is slated to rise at a future unspecified date. You can watch a short video tutorial of the system at https://www.rangefindr.ca/help and take the service for a spin yourself at www.rangefindr.ca.