The Last Mile of Legal Information

Lexum, the now for-profit software and services consulting group that are the technical brains behind the Canadian Legal Information Institute, have announced a municipal laws resource called Oyez Oyez (not to be confused with Chicago Kent’s long standing U.S. Supreme Court Oyez project).  Rob  Richards over at Legal Informatics has good coverage of what this new resource will be, although there are only two entities onboard so far.

Getting Local Laws

Municipal ordinances and regulations and trial court decisions are the last mile of primary law available electronically.  When I worked a reference desk, the legal research questions coming in that were often hardest to answer related to what a particular town or city council had decided.  These records are usually managed at the site of the decision pretty well but often the only way to get a copy is to go to that location and get a copy.  Some municipalities in the United States use a stock ordinance codifier, like American Legal or Conway Greene.  The benefit of this to the researcher and to the municipality is that there is consistent search feature if you are researching multiple locations, and someone else other than an overworked city clerk is responsible for the site maintenance.

The downside is that these may not be official in the meaning that most legal researchers use.  If they are official, then it means you can rely on the electronic version as if it was the paper.  Some, like my own current town of Newmarket, post only the popular by-laws:

**Please be advised, not all by-laws are located on this page.  These are the most frequently requested by-laws.  Copies of all by-laws are available through the Clerk’s department.**

There remains a trust issue, though, which is whether the documents online, official or not, are actually up to date.  In the absence of any confirmation that they are, the online versions of documents – on the government site or in commercial or other databases – are pretty useless to researchers who need to know what a law says.

Trial Court Decisions

This is another area that is a constant challenge.  Common law is based on precedent and the precedent is initially set in the trial court.  If it is appealed, you get appellate cases at intermediate courts of appeal or at the highest court in the jurisdiction.   But trial courts do not always issue written opinions, making tracking these rulings a challenge.  U.S. Federal trial courts, the District Courts, are reported in print and electronic databases.  But state trial courts are reported haphazardly, if at all, even in the commercial electronic databases like Westlaw or LexisNexis.  Even systems that boast comprehensiveness probably do not have trial court decisions for all the jurisdictions for which they have appellate decisions.

One might argue that a judgment that is not appealed and discussed on issues of law at a higher court isn’t to be relied on for precedential purposes.  But there is substantial interest by legal researchers in knowing what a particular court or tribunal decided and an erroneous assumption that these decisions are available electronically (or in print) in every jurisdiction.  At least if the court self-publishes its decisions, there is some stability in the expectation that the opinion is the latest revised version.  But even that is not always a certainty.  Courts are generally good at making decisions but not so reliable when it comes to legal information publishing.

The Last Mile

This is why the success of projects like Lexum’s could provide a significant benefit to researchers.  Case law is a commodity because we can get the same content in multiple places and the level of quality and reliability between the free sites and the commercial sites is small to non-existent.  But there are still areas of information that are hard to dig out without visiting a town hall or trial court to get a decision.  You can use services like LexisNexis Courtlinkto get to a local court, but you’re just hiring a runner to photocopy on your behalf.  It would be valuable to find more of this information in electronic databases.  This will require the judges to make their decisions available to the publishers, and the cities and towns to be proactive about sharing and updating their information so that researchers who do not live in that municipality can get access to it online.