Why wikis won’t work (for the law)

The original Wikipedia, www.wikipedia.com, is an amazing project where any of us can edit any entry to add our knowledge to the pool of information on the web. Can law wikis be as good? On the face of it, their ability to be easily updated might indicate that they can be.

Indeed, wikis have been praised as the way forward by Professor Richard Susskind. He said “Why aren’t we more ambitious? Why aren’t we putting together a multimedia encyclopaedia of English law in the Wikipedia spirit?’”

Back in May 2006, impressed by Susskind, I argued in my weekly UKlawyers newswire for a legal wiki to be a central source of information to be available at a very low price. I suggested that this could be accessed on a pay-per-view basis which would ensure some remuneration for the contributors. What do I think now, eight months later?

Maintaining a law wiki is hard

Andrew Keogh started his crime wiki early this year (
www.wikicrimeline.co.uk), also inspired by Susskind. I have recently spoken to Andrew, a man whose energy is astonishing. However, he is now seven months into his wiki and he is not as excited as he had expected to be. There are only a very few regular contributors and even he finds little time to make additions to the site.

There is a problem about the level and quality of information posted. He had hoped that it would be a two tier site with lawyerly language in the sections for lawyers and easier language in the sections for laymen. This has just not happened with the site proving to be of little use to laymen.

Many people have said that they will not contribute because they do not feel able to provide the necessary quality of input. He is also disappointed in the failure of professional writers to allow use of their material ie to release their copyright. He wrote to over 100 people asking them to contribute to the project but none have responded with anything more than good wishes.

His two main concerns are the question of defining the user for whom the wiki is aimed and then obtaining the contributors to provide and update the information for the users. He is currently financing the wiki himself which he also sees as a long term problem, if only because the server it uses (the site receives so many hits that it really does need its own server) costs him money which he was not spending before he started the project.

None of these problems are going to be easy to resolve.

Now look at the opposition

Look simply at Halsbury’s Laws and you will find over 166 different subject matters with say an average of 1,000 paragraphs of definitive legal information for each subject, every paragraph with footnotes. You can be sure it is as right as it is possible to be – many people are employed to guarantee this and the publishers lose out if it is not.

Now look at Halsbury’s Law volume about Criminal Law, Evidence and Procedure. It has over 1,600 paragraphs. On WikiCrimeLine there are around 300 registered subscribers most of whom (on the basis of a review of recent entries) make little actual contribution. To compete with Halsbury’s Laws they would have to look after 5 paragraphs each. Voluntarily. In their spare time. After they had spent time learning the information needed to keep their paragraphs up to date. This is simply not practical.

Andrew’s wiki, any legal wiki, will almost always be out of date and so will never compete with LexisNexis and the other professional sites.

Free legal information on the internet is not reliable enough simply because the Law is so complicated, and changes made so frequently that we do not have the resources to guarantee its reliability. Unpaid volunteers, even the ones whose expertise is of sufficiently high quality, cannot be expected to compete. There is no contractual obligation to provide the information; there is no duty of care in its provision, and so there is no guarantee that it is right. Is it, therefore, safe to use?

If its safe use cannot be guaranteed what will it actually be used for and who will it be used by? In other words at whom are the wikis aimed? They should not be used by law students because the law they learn has got to be perfect. They should not be used by practitioners, because the pay and profits of practising lawyers depend on their knowledge being negligence-claim-proof. They should not be used by lay people as an alternative to proper legal advice because they might end up making mistakes which are difficult and expensive to rectify.

The only thing in their favour is that many of the people who look at the Wikis may not have access to any other legal information and sometimes, especially soon after its production, it might be safe to use it for some purposes. On that basis it can be argued that it is better than nothing. But on that basis it cannot, surely, be argued that this will be the future of law on the internet.

These wikis are produced by volunteers (often with unattributable names like “Anna” or “Barrister” to quote two from Andrew’s wiki). They give their commentary and knowledge for the fun of it or at least because they enjoy doing so or even for their own promotional purposes.

Going back to my idea of introducing a pay-per-view system to look at the information, it might encourage some contributors to be even more reliable than they are now. On the other hand such charges might imply a duty of care, a guarantee of some sort, for which many contributors might not like to be held responsible.

Returning to Richard Susskind’s question: “Why aren’t we more ambitious?”, the answer is that even noble and hard working people like Andrew Keogh don’t have the resources to be so, or the necessary expertise to do so for every legal topic in UK law. The task is too big for a voluntary exercise.

So my opinion has changed in the last eight months. I was initially impressed when Susskind said that a wiki could be an enormously valuable resource for all. Unfortunately the lack of resources to produce proper legal wikis means that they will never be good enough for the greater public good.

Steve Butler is a practising solicitor. He has previously spent several years working for major legal information projects (Sift’s LawZone and then Semple Piggot Rochez’s Legal Practitioner) collating and presenting legal information available on the internet. As well as his private practice, he now also produces the UKlawyers newswires usually on a weekly basis, collating legal information from a variety of sources to be used (free) by practitioners.

Email smb@e-solicitors.co.uk.