Writing in Times Online in April 2006 the eminent Professor Richard Susskind,
legal tech guru and adviser to the great and good, spelt out his vision for a
“Wikipedia of English law”:
This online resource could be established and maintained collectively by the legal profession; by practitioners, judges, academics and voluntary workers. If leaders in the English legal world are serious about promoting the jurisdiction aEven with that done, we’re still in a bit of trouble, as an important part of English law is entirely owned by a private charity, the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting. They publish the law reports, which contain summaries of important cases, and strongly s world class, here is a genuine opportunity to pioneer, to excel, to provide a wonderful social service, and to leave a substantial legacy. The initiative would evolve a corpus of English law like no other: a resource readily available to lawyers and lay people; a free web of inter-linked materials; packed with scholarly analysis and commentary, supplemented by useful guidance and procedure; rendered intensely practical by the addition of action points and standard documents; and underpinned by direct access to legislation and case law, made available by the Government, perhaps through BAILII. A Wikipedia of English law could be an evolving, interactive, multimedia legal resource of unprecedented scale and utility. (Quick, get into wikis – before everyone else)
Of course, this project will need a vast amount of basic legal information to be open first. Luckily, lots of people have been working on this already for the last few years. We’ve got the Statute Law database and OPSI publish Acts and Statutory Instruments. The licenses you get for these are good, quite free ones (anybody know if they meet Open Knowledge Definition?)
All those sources have holes, in terms of missing historical data, timeliness of new data, and most importantly lack of structure. I hope the timeliness and historical completeness will be dealt with by the Ministry of Justice and OPSI as the Statute Law project matures. mySociety are digging away at the structure one from the direction of new laws, with their Free Our Bills campaign, and anyway the Free Legal Web project can add the structure.
But bigger than those holes is the complete lack of case law. Even the initial court decisions are not published by the courts. They send them in secret to a separate charity called BAILII, who understand the web so badly they don’t let search engines send their website traffic. I’ve submitted a request to OPSI’s excellent new public sector data unlocking service asking for the court decisions to be freed.
Even with that done, we’re still in a bit of trouble, as an important part of English law is entirely owned by a private charity, the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting. They publish the law reports, which contain summaries of important cases, and strongly define which case law a lawyer can refer to. They are in sore need of a new business model which lets them publish their information as open knowledge.
Finally the most important bit is the commentary – the equivalent of all the expensive legal textbooks. I’m confident a good community can build round a Wikipedia like resource to replace that.
So work to do, but all now so doable.
Sign up to the Free Legal Web planning barcamp on 18th October. We’re going to free the law. How empowering is that for everyone in society. Be part of it.