Free Access to Law in the United Kingdom and Beyond

I did not to go to Law via the Internet 2013 held on the Island of Jersey September 26 and 27, because the dates were not close enough to my planned trip to England in October to be able to do both. You can get a taste of what the conference was about from their web page and this statement:

It is 11 years since the Declaration on Free Access to Law was signed at Montreal and the Free Access to Law Movement (FALM) was founded. Since then the movement has grown to include organisations from more than 50 countries and recent Law Via the Internet conferences have been held in Africa, Asia and North America. Now, for the first time, LVI comes to the British Isles in the beautiful island of Jersey. The Jersey Legal Information Board has been a member of FALM since 2008 and is proud to host LVI2013 where the over-arching theme will be ‘Free Access to Law in a Changing World’.

That statement of purpose for this conference reminded me that I needed to follow up on the current state of access to law in the United Kingdom. In the mid 1980s I participated in a study program for US law librarians held at Oxford University. The world of law librarianship has certainly experienced seismic changes since that time before the Internet. Now we expect instant information from a simple search. But will that simple search get us free and authoritative legal information online? It’s not necessarily so and depends on the jurisdiction you are researching.

Jersey itself is a model system which has a “government sponsored agency that makes Jersey laws and judgments freely available to the public.” These are made available by the Jersey Legal Information Board on their website .

The United Kingdom is another jurisdiction with excellent access to free legal information from both the British and Irish Legal Information Institute (BAILII) and government websites. According to the About BAILII page on their website,

(BAILII) provides access to the most comprehensive set of British and Irish primary legal materials that are available for free and in one place on the internet. In August 2012, BAILII included 90 databases covering 7 jurisdictions. The system contains around 36 gigabytes of legal materials and around 297,513 searchable documents. … The databases on BAILII are derived from a number of sources. Some of the data comes from existing free to air sites. Most of the databases are based on published and unpublished CD-ROMs or rely opon direct and indirect feeds by relevant courts, government departments and other organisations. All of the data has been converted into a consistent format and a generalised set of search and hypertext facilities have been added. Further details as to where databases come from are provided on the database home pages.

There are a variety of ways to search the databases including by case citation or title, by legislation as well as an advanced search. I did a search on case names using ‘Gaskell’ and came up with one case from 2000 where, to my relief, the Gaskell in question was victorious in her constructive dismissal suit. All in all, this website is quite robust and very responsive.

But I also wanted to explore a few government sites to see how they might compare to others. After all the government should be sharing its information and work products with the public [Note that I am writing this during the government shutdown in the US when most government websites have been blocked.] A sampling of UK government sites follows.

This website is managed by The National Archives on behalf of HM Government. Publishing all UK legislation is a core part of the remit of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (HMSO), part of The National Archives, and the Office of the Queen’s Printer for Scotland. The original (as enacted) and revised versions of legislation on are published by and under the authority of the Controller of HMSO (in her capacity as The Queen’s Printer of Acts of Parliament, and Government Printer of Northern Ireland) and the Queen’s Printer for Scotland.

It contains UK Acts 1267 to present and much more and has both a simple and an advanced search function.

Official Documents is the official reference facility for Command and departmentally sponsored House of Commons Papers. All Command Papers and House of Commons Papers published from May 2005 onwards, as well as key Departmental papers, are available for free on the site in PDF format.

The site has an advanced search and contains selected earlier papers.

The Supreme Court:

  • is the final court of appeal for all United Kingdom civil cases, and criminal cases from England, Wales and Northern Ireland
  • hears appeals on arguable points of law of general public importance
  • concentrates on cases of the greatest public and constitutional importance
  • maintains and develops the role of the highest court in the United Kingdom as a leader in the common law world.

This site has a single search box and contains judgments from July 31, 2009, to present.

This page lists HTML versions of all House of Lords judgments delivered from 14 November 1996 to 30 July 2009. Print versions of judgments since 2005 are available in PDF format from the top right hand side of individual judgment pages. Information about judgments prior to 1996 can be found on the judgements page.

Ministry of Justice publishes a range of statistics relating to the operation of the criminal and civil justice systems, on aspects of criminal justice policy, and on other areas of the department’s responsibility

Finally I recommend checking out the UK Resources page on Lawlinks at the University of Kent. Please let me know about any other sources you think should be included in the list above.


  1. Good article Judith. Just to note that the Oxford Lib Guide to UK law is comprehensive – and also to note that is not yet comprehensive with all amendments and updates, so just be aware of that if using it.