Freeing Law

There have been a number of interesting tidbits lately on the state of electronic access to legal information (including Melissa Barr's Democracy in the Dark and's article on standards). Let me go one step further and ask why aren't all published cases online for free?

I've been thinking about this for a long time and want to start gathering information on the problem and potential solutions. Here are my opening thoughts and questions. Please comment on this post or e-mail me if you have answers (or more questions).

1. How big is the problem?

We've all heard that the current pricing models of LexisNexis and West effectively foreclose use of these services for small practitioners, legal aid institutions and pro se litigants. Is it true? To what extent to competing pay services (such as LoisLaw and VersusLaw) and the free but spotty services (such as Findlaw) help fill the gap?

One of the major problems must be getting burned in court with cases that you couldn't find in researching. Has that happened to you?

Another major issue is lack of major innovation in legal information provision (from searching to encoding to automated summarization etc.) that comes from lack of competition. Do you think that a free and open opinion index would fix that?

Yet another problem that may be related is that courts have been slow to provide current opinions to the public electronically. I think part of the reason for this may be because current court opinions are not as useful as a full historical database (the usefulness of a case database grows with its size and there is an extra premium on a complete database). Do you think that keeping a full public database current would provide more incentives?

2. How big is the solution?

Taking California as an example, how big are all the California state and federal cases? How many pages are all the reporters? What are the relative sizes of the problem for other states?

I think I have a handle on scanning / OCR / proofreading / meta data generation issues from document collection / processing. On the high end, I think you could do all of that for under twenty cents a page using a commercial service's basic rates. Obviously this might be done cheaper in-house or using volunteers. Anyone have more realistic estimates?

What is the state of the art opinion reporting schemas? How developed is it?

Not a question

We live in a time that could, as Brewster Kahle often says, "provide universal access to all human knowledge." The issue of free and open access to judicial opinions seems like an important component of human knowledge that we ought to be providing for free.

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