Is There a Unified Approach to Legal Citation?

Robin Cover, Director of Information Services at OASIS (Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards), has released version 2 of his annotated bibliography on standards for legal citation.

This extensive collection provides a list of references “intended to provide general background to the larger ‘legal citation’ problem.” A Standardized Data/Markup Model to Support Neutral Citation of Court Cases, Legislation, and Regulations includes references from 1995 up to and including mid-January 2014.

In his introductory remarks Cover notes that “As of September 12, 2012, community discussion was underway about the value of a standardization effort to define a non-proprietary and royalty-free citation markup language model for legal/legislative content.” It won’t be easy. Nothing ever is. Settling on a standard method for legal citation is one of the many daunting tasks that we will need to tackle as we move toward a linked data model for legal resources.

Cover frames the problem nicely:

“… the number of officially binding electronic resources for legislation, case law, and official documents is increasing. Relying solely on the printed text of citations will add to the cost and burden of researching and complying with increasingly complex legal issues. A uniform approach to legal citations is crucial for the long-term accessibility and preservation of legal content …”

The solution he proposes is to develop a formal vocabulary and markup system for legal citations a goal I whole-heartedly support. However, there are many, many independent efforts developing metadata standards for legal resources and a “unified approach” may be a tall order.

One of these initiatives is URN:Lex (A Uniform Resource Name (URN) Namespace for Sources of Law (LEX)). The first draft was submitted to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) in the spring of 2010 and the most recent draft is dated November 30, 2013. Cover provides valuable links to recent “conversations” that will be worth reviewing and he also notes that this effort has the support of the Institute of Legal Information Theory and Techniques of the Italian National Research Council, the National Centre for ICT in Public Administration (now the Agency for Digital Italy), PRODASEN (the IT Department of the Federal Senate in Brazil), and Cornell’s Legal Information Institute.

The goal of URN:Lex is to:

“… assign an unequivocal identifier, in standard format, to documents that are sources of law. The identifier is conceived so that its construction depends only on the characteristics of the document itself and is, therefore, independent from the document’s on-line availability, its physical location, and access mode.”

In terms of how this may feed potential URIs as described in Tim Berners-Lee’s linked data principles this is definitely work to be watched closely.

In addition to Cover’s fantastic reference list I would also recommend Robert Richards list of resources for “metadata specifically designed for legal information.” Richards’ list also shows the variety of work underway in this area.

Plenty of food for thought here and I hope to return to both of these resources for some future posts exploring legal metadata.

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