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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.

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