Bloomsbury Law Online

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Paul Magrath

Paul Magrath is Head of Product Development and Online Content at the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting.

justice online

Courts in England and Wales have been struggling with information technology for so long now, that expectations of any improvement remain stagnantly low. Nevertheless, the current project to create an Online Court with its own procedure and staff goes beyond anything hitherto attempted. Can it overcome a long history of failed IT projects and deliver something that not only matches its own ambition but overturns our low expectations?

And if it does, what will happen to the principle of open justice and accountability, not to mention law reporting, when court hearings are conducted in a virtual realm without the press bench and public gallery of a traditional physical courtroom?

email-newsletters

A good way of keeping up to date with recent developments in law – and to collect quite a bit of free content – is to sign up for email alerts. But take care to choose wisely, lest your inbox be flooded with updates you don’t have time to read. It’s best to choose a few that deal with key areas of interest, and make sure you at least skim through them when they arrive, or transfer them to an “updates” folder in your email app so you can review them when you have time.

You can sign up to email alerts from official sources like government departments or NGOs, or from legal publishers anxious to share summary content in the hope you will subscribe to their full services. Nothing wrong with that; and the free content from solicitors’ firms or barristers’ chambers has a commercial justification too: they want to showcase their expertise in their areas of specialism. In addition, a number of legal blogs provide case comments and current awareness content.

Trinity_merge3

At a time when some other publishers are struggling to make the case for their law reports, ICLR is embarking on a massive expansion of its coverage. In a brace of new developments for 2016, we have begun publishing unreported transcripts on ICLR Online, and we will be expanding the leading general series, the Weekly Law Reports (WLR) with hundreds of extra cases each year.

The fact that these extra reports will appear only online has caused anxiety for some, particularly law librarians, and an explanation of our rationale may be helpful.

Law is a complicated subject and its effect on people’s lives can be hard to explain. But in certain areas the traditional media, particularly at the tabloid end of the spectrum, are notoriously prone to bias and misrepresentation.

Three areas of law where this is particularly noticeable are family, crime and human rights.

In all three areas, lawyers who are fed up of seeing cases misrepresented in the press have got together to provide a solution: websites which aim to clarify the issues, dispel the myths and help the general reader to understand what is really going on.

Most people would now agree that public information should not only be publicly available, but also freely available. In the area of law, this is assumed to include not only legislation but also case law.

This is, after all, the law of the land, ignorance of which is considered no defence. It is probably impossible to know all of the legislation currently in force, and certainly impossible to know all the common law, developed incrementally, case by case, over hundreds of years. But we should at least be able to refer to it. As public information it should certainly be accessible. Does that mean it should also be in public hands?

This article looks at the pros and cons of placing the custodianship of public legal information in public, private or – a third way – charitable (or non-profit) hands. It looks at the situation as it was, as it is now, and as it might be in the future.

The legal professions, however unwillingly, and indeed the English legal system itself, are undergoing profound changes. Law reporting is bound to adapt.

The range and type of information which needs to be published is changing. The model of a carefully curated selection of momentous precedents – cases which marked out a path of stepping stones in the development of the law – though still valuable, is no longer enough in an age of online aggregation and Big Data analytics.

Lawyers and students need cases for a variety of reasons, not just to witness a change in law. And, in electronic form, the storage and retrieval of vast hoards of information is both easy and cheap. This obviates the need and to some extent the rationale for only selecting and preserving the most important cases.

But is there still merit in the idea of selection, or at any rate some sort of evaluation system for judgments? And how else can a publisher of legal information add value in the digital age?