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Wikipedia for law– pipe dream or possibility?

March 3, 2011 5 comments

It seems to me, after this class of discovering all the free legal resources out there, that the one main weakness of the free sources compared to Wexis is that the free resources tend to be scattered all over the place and are relatively easy to find only if you know where to look (and what you’re looking for). Which is problematic for those lawyers– and non-lawyers– who did not happen to take this class in law school.) And even for those of us in this class, who know where to look, we still need to go through 4 or 5 (or more) different websites to find what we need, which can be both time-consuming and irritating. (I don’t know about you but I, for one, dislike having lots of tabs open on Firefox at any given time and having to switch back and forth to find what I’m looking for.) All of this brings me to wonder why there isn’t– or is there– a really comprehensive wikipedia for the law– a one-stop shop, essentially, for the law and legal analysis where lawyers and non-lawyers alike can quickly go to find out what they might need to know, at least as a starting point.

The “wikipedia model” has been talked about a lot– the idea of having users generate content and analysis that’s policed by other users to create a resource of information. But is it possible for something like the law, that requires more expertise and education to understand, than for the rather general knowledge available on wikipedia? Predictably, I suppose, right now the answer to this question ranges between “Yes, sure, why not?” and “No, what are you smoking?” (We’re lawyers-to-be so we know by now that, if you ask any given question to 4 lawyers, you’re likely to get at least 6 different “right” answers.) Whatever your answer to the question of whether a wikipedia for law is possible, it’s an intriguing idea.  I’ll quote from Professor Richard Susskind who has expressed his vision of what a wikipedia for law would look like (because he phrased it much better than I could): “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…” that is “established and maintained collectively by the legal profession; by practitioners, judges, academics and voluntary workers.” Maybe due to the charm of his phrasing, it sounds like a brilliant idea, which begs the question of why it hasn’t already been thought of and implemented– and since it apparently hasn’t been, is it even possible?

There’s a beta, i.e. testing version of this idea for British law- Free Legal Web. Right now, it provides free access to statutes and case law (for the full text, it usually links out to the official Government site or to BAILII for the cases) along with case summaries, case comments, and articles written by a variety of contributors. The search function is rather primitive right now, but then this is a beta version, and people who use the site are encouraged to contribute to the site to add more information to it. In particular, I like the Case Comments that provide analysis of cases, along with a brief summary of the facts of the case, explaining the significance of the case in context- for example, this case comment on ZH (Tanzania) v. SSHD, a UK Supreme Court case. The site also has “guides” that provide neat introductions to procedures and other things, mainly aimed at a non-legal audience, for example the Novice guide to court hearings.

Given Free Legal Web’s existence among other things, I don’t see much of an obstacle to creating a wikipedia for US law. As Free Legal Web shows us, there’s no need to re-invent the wheel in providing free access to the full text of statutes and case law; creating a database of laws and cases with links to sites like LII shouldn’t strain our capabilities too much, I should think, although it would be a large project requiring the commitment of volunteers, but I can easily envision this as a project started by a law school and, initially at least, monitored by law students. As for providing Case Summaries and Comments, along with analysis, this would only seem to require combining and organizing the types of resources that already exist. Certainly, there’s a proliferation of blawgs that post case summaries/comments and legal analysis, on topics of interest to the blog contributors– and the blawgs aren’t (for the most part) written for profit, so it should not seem too difficult to get lawyers to contribute to the site in some way, especially as so many (apparently) already are willing to spend their free time talking about an issue of the law that interests them, through the form of blog posts. Any Free Legal Web equivalent for US law would, of course, be complicated by the existence of the 50 states and their different laws, but I don’t see this as an insurmountable obstacle. And, in the end, I’m not sure why a wikipedia for law shouldn’t be entirely feasible because after all, lawyers as a profession aren’t generally reluctant to talk/write about what they know or think, so finding people to contribute to a wikipedia for law shouldn’t be hard.

The next frontier

February 23, 2011 Leave a comment

This class has taught us all just how much free information is out there, at least if we know how and where to find it. But our last assignment got me thinking about journals, the other kind of secondary sources out there, and wondering if legal journals are available for free online too– for us to use after we have to leave the convenient confines of the Law School Library and no longer have access to HeinOnline.

I managed to find a number of lists of academic journals available online and will go through a couple of them. The first one is a blog post providing a list of100 Free Academic Journals You Can Access Online. The journals are organized by subject matter category, for example, Arts & Humanities, Business, and Social Sciences. Each journal is linked to and has a 1 sentence summary of the sort of information and articles the journal has. The Law & Politics section is rather depressingly short, in light of the number of legal journals out there. (Just how depressingly short the list is will be clear from looking at the back of the Bluebook, for starters.) But it does include some journals that may be useful, like the Harvard Human Rights Journal.

Another website is one called, very creatively, Academic Journals, that provides a list of open access academic journals. (I’m sure you’re shocked.) This list, too, is divided up into general categories, of which Legal Studies, is one (and more usefully, clicking on the category at the top allows you to skip down to where that category begins on the page.) The list will probably be of limited use to us, though, as the categories with the most open access journals are the Medical Sciences and Biological Sciences categories. The Legal Studies category consists of…
1 journal- the Journal of Law and Conflict Resolution.

Fortunately for us, though, that’s not all. More useful is the Directory of Open Access Journals that links to open access journals and has a much longer list of journals relating to Law. Some journals are international and are, therefore, only available in the native language and not in English but most are in English. This directory includes journals like the Duke Law Journal and the Federal Courts Law Review. (Incidentally, I must mention that I’m impressed by Duke’s commitment to providing open access to their law journals, as 4 of Duke’s Journals are listed on the Directory and, from what I can tell, the other 5 journals at Duke Law School are also publicly available, on their respective websites. This may also be the place to mention that not one of Cornell’s journals is listed on this Directory.)

Lastly, is Questia that is an online library and also has academic journals that can be searched or browsed. Questia might be the most useful site because it provides a search function so you can search for keywords or by Title or Author, among other things, to find articles written on a particular topic, without having to physically browse through all the possible relevant journals. As an example, a search for “check kiting” came up with more than 50 results in journals, and a search for “child abuse” as the specific term came up with more than 2000 results in journal articles that mentioned child abuse. Questia does require registration in order to actually access the full text of the materials, but if just looking at the search results for various keywords is an indication, registering with Questia seems like the thing to do, especially once we all lose access to HeinOnline.

The one thing that must be admitted is that these lists of journals, useful as they are, all appear to be limited in the types of law-related journals they provide, but that may be a result of there simply not being that many law reviews that are entirely open access. It seems as if the next step in making legal resources more accessible will be in the world of law reviews.

Tweeting a revolution and more

February 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Last October, Malcolm Gladwell caused some controversy by posting an article on Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted. At the time, the article caused a stir among the blogosphere of people agreeing, at least in part and some others vehemently disagreeing. This debate just got a lot more interesting thanks to the recent revolution in Egypt and there’s already been quite a bit of talk about how much of it might be owed (or not) to Facebook, Twitter, and the Internet in general– both in the blogosphere (like this post on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube’s role in the uprisings in the Middle East) and in the mainstream media, like the New York Times: Equal Rights Takes to the Barricades and Facebook Officials Keep Quiet on Its Role in Revolts.

I don’t want to get into the debate on the subject (partly because that would probably take a book and not a blog post), but it did start me thinking about the idea of free sources, legal or not, on the Internet, in general.  In this class and elsewhere, obviously, having these free resources is very useful for lawyers and other people to learn more and, even if social media and the Internet might not cause a literal revolution, everyone seems agreed that having more free resources is a good thing.  But it occurs to me that just having these new resources may not, actually, be a good, in and of itself, but it’s only as good as what people use it for (like most tools, of any kind.)   As Gladwell pointed out, a link or a cause going “viral” on Facebook and Twitter is one thing, but it may not actually do anything.   As an example, I can point to one recent campaign on Facebook that involved urging people to use a certain website to turn their profile pictures purple as a symbol of solidarity against the rash of teenage bullying in schools.  Showing solidarity is a good thing as was raising the profile of the issue, but as an action, I highly doubt it accomplished any tangible good– or ever will.  Clicking ‘like’ on Facebook isn’t a form of voting in an election and it won’t even contact a member of Congress to let them know about a problem, that may potentially have some effect.  It’s more a short, painless way of making people feel involved and active without actually requiring them to do anything. The problem is that it may even deepen the fairly notorious apathy of the average American when it comes to things like politics and law-making.  Such people may end up feeling just involved enough by clicking ‘like’ on Facebook, and not so uninvolved as to feel like s/he needs to make a real effort to get involved in a meaningful way.

The Internet has made a lot of things much easier, but sometimes doing what’s harder is what’s required.  As an example (and returning to a more legal subject), Regulations.gov has made it a lot easier for the public to comment on federal agency rule-makings. But making commenting easier didn’t necessarily result in more or better public comments to proposed rules and may, in fact, result in worse comments. For example, in the Airline Passenger Rights rule, there were a large number of comments– at least 40– submitted by members of an airline passenger rights organization that were nearly all identical and did nothing but express the person’s support for the proposed rule. Such comments would have been absolutely useless to the agency and is one example of how lowering barriers to participation may not end up being a good thing. Participating in a rulemaking in any meaningful way requires some effort– if only just to understand the rule at issue– and that may not be a bad thing.

The free legal resources available may have their negative effects too. As an example, it may make people feel more confident to represent themselves pro se in any legal matters that arise, but pro se litigants are likely to be disadvantaged when facing off against a lawyer in court, not only from a lack of formal training, but because of the limited information that’s available. As we’ve mentioned in class, none of the free websites that provide case law allow for things like Shepardizing and so a litigant may end up relying on a case that was no longer good law and lose the case. This is not to say, of course, that having more legal resources available on the Internet is a bad thing, but as in evaluating any new website, we should remember that more information doesn’t necessarily mean more good information, just as lowering barriers to participation doesn’t necessarily lead to effective or meaningful participation.

Getting started

February 10, 2011 Leave a comment

In our catalog of free resources, it seems as if there’s a lot of information that’s fairly readily available once you know what you’re looking for, but it gets harder if you don’t, in those situations where you’ve been thrown into the deep end and need to learn the law in a new area quickly. One resource that might get overlooked is that of all the government agencies. Agency websites can often be great places to look for background information and more in the particular field that the agency is in charge of. And, conveniently, Louisiana State University has compiled an alphabet-soup-like Federal Agency Directory that lists all the federal agencies, from the big, well-known Executive Agencies (like the Department of Labor) to agencies most people may never have heard of (like the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee).

Often, the agency websites will have the actual text of the laws they enforce available and it tends to be much easier to find than looking through the U.S. Code, if you don’t happen to know the citation to the law itself. For example, the DoL has the full text of the Fair Labor Standards Act available as a pdf document on its website. The agencies will also have the regulations and proposed regulations that they have made for each law they enforce, and again, it’s usually much easier to read on the agency website where it’s all in one place, than it is to hunt through the Code of Federal Regulations or the Federal Register for the regulations you’re interested in. Admittedly, some agency websites (like the DoL) will only send you to the relevant part of the CFR on GPOAccess.gov but some of the agencies will have the full text of the regulations on their own website, simplifying things. The agency websites will also have the text of any proposed rules they’ve promulgated recently so you can find out about any new issues and changes in the law. For example, the Department of Education posted a Final Rule on federal foreign aid programs in foreign schools in November of last year– and the rule, as you see, is linked on the website.

Aside from the primary sources of law, however, the agency websites are also very useful because of the more general background information they often provide. They provide everything from brief descriptions of the laws they enforce and any current issues the agency might be keeping an eye on to the more official Guidance documents agencies publish. These guidance documents provide information to the public on what their rights are and how to comply with the laws and can be a great starting point to learn about an area of law. As an example, a company worrying about how to comply with the employment discrimination statutes can easily go to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website and find the actual text of the statutes the EEOC, as well as their accompanying regulations, and can also find the various Guidance Documents the EEOC has published. The Guidance Documents usually provide a thorough introduction to all the common issues that arise under that statute and information on how to comply with the law. The Guidance documents can be particularly helpful because they provide a summary, of sorts, of what the law (both statutory and administrative) says and also reflect any major case law in the area, at least up until the date the documents were issued. Also helpful is the fact that the Guidance documents are written and cited as legal documents so any mention of a case is accompanied by its full citation, making it much easier to find the actual text of the case on either Westlaw or Lexis (or a free site) if you need to.

After going through an agency’s website, you are likely to know a lot more about the specific area of law and then, if you need to, can research a lot more effectively using either one of the subscription sites or one of the free sites.

Free access, but not easy access

February 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Regulations.gov is, in theory, a large step forward in making the rule-making process more publicly accessible, by allowing people to see all proposed rules and read comments submitted by others on the proposed rules. In practice, however, Regulations.gov suffers from several problems, both systemic and having to do with the site’s usability, so that the Open Government Initiative’s goal of increased public participation is not even close to being reached.

(As an aside, the systemic barriers to greater public participation have to do with a lack of publicity about proposed rules, combined with the general public ignorance about the rule-making process and public apathy about government.) To focus more on Regulations.gov’s weaknesses as a website, the most noticeable problem might be that Regulations.gov’s search function is not very good and would be even harder to use for any non-lawyer members of the general public that might go to the site. The search function appears to be limited to what the official agency-assigned title of the Rule is, that may not be very intuitive and may not actually be informative as to what the Proposed Rule actually contains. As an example, for the Airline Passenger Rights rule that was open for comment last summer, a search for the terms “peanut allergies”, “tarmac delay” or “baggage fees” (all of which are major topics dealt with in the Proposed Rule) does not come up with the rule. Neither does a more general search for “airline passenger rights”. (More disturbingly, I have it on good authority that one of the DoT lawyers assigned to the Rule was not able to find the Rule on Regulations.gov by searching for it.)

Another problem is that Regulations.gov only posts the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) as it appears in the Federal Register with no alterations. But, as anyone who’s tried to read through a NPRM probably knows, most (if not all) NPRM’s are not particularly easy to understand, even for a lawyer, let alone a member of the general public. Often, for example, an NPRM only refers back to the relevant section of the C.F.R. and says that the agency is proposing to change a word here or insert a phrase there. Without also having the relevant sections of the C.F.R. readily available and having background knowledge about the area, it would be very difficult to even begin to understand the real meaning or significance of the NPRM in order to be able to comment on it. The NPRM’s are also written by lawyers, as legal documents, without any view towards clarity, comprehensibility, succinctness or a number of other things. (Oddly enough, as mentioned in the Rulemaking article we read for class, the Plain Writing Act exempts regulations from the plain writing requirement.)

With all this, it’s hard enough for a lawyer to use Regulations.gov effectively, let alone for a member of the general public to use it. Regulations.gov provides free access to the rule-making process in its various stages, but it does not quite provide public access to rule-making yet, in any real sense. As the example of Regulations.gov indicates, the difference between providing free access to the laws and providing easy/public access to the laws is something to keep in mind in assessing any website that purports to provide legal resources of any kind.

Going global

January 28, 2011 Leave a comment

The Gender Justice Observatory is the rare site that includes actual case law.  Its focus, as its name suggests, is on women and the law, ranging from reproductive rights to discrimination to violence against women.  It has a fairly extensive database of cases having to do with women’s issues from mostly international courts, like the European Court of Human Rights, and some national-level courts.  Most cases are accompanied by a brief summary of the case holding along with a pdf file of the decision itself.   The summary of the case can be very helpful because it saves a lot of time so that lawyers don’t have to read through the entire case in order to find out if a particular decision will be helpful or relevant or not.  It’s possible to search or sort through the cases by the deciding court, the country, the particular issue (e.g. abortion), or the particular law/statute/treaty that the case is based on (e.g. the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.)

The drawbacks of the site are several.  The site itself is a little frustrating to use because the search function is rather limited, at best, and requires a lot of browsing rather than simply entering in any keywords.  The case summaries are usually in English but the actual decisions are in the native language of the country, which can limit the site’s usefulness as a resource for lawyers in the U.S.   It is also rather heavily Euro-centric in the case law it has, although that may have more to do with the fact that it is significantly easier to find cases from European countries/courts than it is in other parts of the world.   (The site also doesn’t include any cases from the U.S.)

There is a plethora of other websites dealing with international women’s rights and many places where lawyers can find the main human rights documents, like the texts of the various international Conventions on human rights, but finding case law is much harder.  The Gender Justice Observatory, for all its flaws, is one of the few case law sources out there.   And, on a positive note, some of its gaps and omissions are filled in by the Legal Resources page of Cornell’s very own Avon Center, although the Avon Center is somewhat more narrowly focused on violence against women specifically, where the Gender Justice Observatory is broader in its scope.  Put together, both websites provide a very useful resource for anyone interested in researching the law of international women’s issues.