Free Case Law online
Free case law on-line. This is the text of an article for Delia Venables 'Internet for Lawyers' magazine in early 2000.
- House of Lords
This was the first English Court to make it to the web. They have an admirably simple and underdesigned interface, and if you know what you are looking for it can be found relatively quickly. The small number of cases decided, and the quality of the decisions, makes it much easier to create and maintain the site. Less editorial and managerial resources are needed to do what is required. They did have a glitch when for a short time they ditched older cases, but they appeared to learn the nature of their error quickly, and the material was restored. The site covers cases from November 1996.
The URL is the most complicated part of the site - http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/ld199697/ldjudgmt/ldjudgmt.htm
- Privy Council
Newest site on the block. It resembles the House of Lords site in its accessibility and design. They have taken the opportunity to include a few cases seen to be of historical significance. This is good, and they ought to continue to put up older cases.
- The Court Service
When this site began it attracted some deserved criticism. It has improved very considerably. At first, there was also some lack of discipline in the ranks, and it seemed clear that some divisions were rather less interested than others in putting decisions on the web. The site is successful in including most judgements of worth from the Court of Appeal divisions, and is worth a visit for that alone. Some of the High Court Divisions are clearly more committed to the project than are others. The new practice direction on the use of web based judgements in citations before the court suggests a general intention to enforce a pulling up of socks. It can only be good. For the moment though, my real criticism is that there is no obvious declaration of what is available. A simple definition of what is available such as ‘All cases in the Court of Appeal after Jan 2001’, or whatever would be quite useful. When visiting the site it seems to be pot luck as to what will or will not be there. I am sure that some Family Division cases were available at one point, but looking now, one might think the Family Division had disappeared entirely. Another minor beef, is that they have nice little buttons, but sometimes the buttons are links, and sometimes only the text next to the buttons are links, and sometimes both. The site includes several lesser tribunals such as the Lands Tribunal, and these sites have done much to make such specialised areas of law more accessible to outsiders.
The King of sites. Bailii have taken over where Smith Bernall (understandably) flagged, and now have easily the best collection of primary sources of UK law. It remains a humiliation that the Aussies had to do it for us, but this must just be swallowed. They have worked with AustLII who provide the direct support, and the Society for Computers and Law. They have managed to bring together primary resources, both case law and statutes, in a way demonstrates, and simply, how things should be done. As one might expect with such a huge wealth of information it can be easy to lose one’s way on the site, with its structure not quite as clear to outsiders as it will be to those who maintain it.
They seem to be running out of money. Any offers ...
- The Law Society’s Gazette
The Gazette is a weekly magazine published for the Law Society, and which is sent to every solicitor in the UK. The magazine is now reproduced on-line, and the site is one of the very busiest UK law sites. The Gazette includes a comprehensive range of case summaries. These now go back on-line to mid 1996. The Law Society are to be congratulated that, after a hiccup or two, and they sometimes looked like something a little worse, they have a site which is easily navigable and comprehensive. If they have it you can find it – which is all you can properly ask of them.
- The Times
The Times is another well established site. The Times Law Reports are a well known series, and in principle are now available from January 1996. The Times as one of the first sites, has learned as it has gone on, and changed its layout. This can make some back issues less easy to find, but it is all still there. If you know the date of what you want before you set off, this is the place you are most likely to find any particular case report.
- Employment Appeals Tribunal
The Employment Appeals Tribunal site is straightforward, it looks professional, only slightly over-extending its clever menus to slow the service down. Nevertheless, it works. It contains in addition to recent case law (from 2000 on) good information about the forms to be used, and the practice and rules of the Tribunal.
- European Court of Human Rights
The European Court of Human Rights has done perhaps more than any other to make itself accessible over the web, with new material being put up regularly, and having made greater efforts than other courts to extend its coverage backwards. Once you get past the unnecessarily grandiose graphics, and the sometimes unreadably small text, and the occasional failings of its servers, it works.
- European Court of Justice
The European Court of Justice is another site with expensive, if strange, tastes in graphics. Even more than the European Court of Human Rights they have a tradition of going out of their way to provide open access to their case law. They moved onto the web, and at first things were promising. They have now decided to take off the site older case law. Apart from the fact that the page recording the destruction of the archive is presently itself ‘under construction,’ and yes they do have little images of men with pick-axes, the idea that they should not make the web a place of record by simple beggars belief. Once they have gone to the trouble of making case law available, it seems most strange then to remove it. Let us hope that the archive re-emerges with the full collection of judgements.
Where all these sites fall down to some extent is that they assume that you know what you want before arrive at the site. Some even assume you may know the case number. They all provide search facilities, of varying degrees of sophistication, but such search services are notoriously difficult to get right. May I, therefore, introduce my own law-index (at http://www.swarb.co.uk) The law-index provides brief ratio decidendi for some 12,000 cases from the beginning of 1992.
The idea is that one can simply look for cases, for example within an area of law, or relating to a certain court, or Act of parliament, and discover quickly what case you need to look for. Citations can be used to take you to either the Law Society’s Gazette, or to the Times Law reports, but the case name can be cut and pasted into any of the search pages of the other main sites listed above, and the full text of the case will, ok … might … be found. There are other summarising services from the Weekly Law Reports (best), from Butterworths Direct, and Sweet and Maxwell. The Electronic Telegraph also contain shorter law reports. However each of these services seems so keen to sell its other services that the free service is reduced to the point of being frustrating and unhelpful. In particular it seems strange for the Electronic Telegraph to remove cases after one week.
Last, I must confirm that I omitted the Weekly Law Reports site. This was based upon a memory of the site which is not justified by its current excellent layot and content.