Roger writing the LAWmag

CANLii, Poulin and the Future of Legal Information

For two days, tucked away in a backroom of the Montreal Marriott Hotel, legal information pioneers are meeting and exchange war stories. 

Canadians are spoiled with the brainchild of Lexum, now headed by Daniel Poulin, an unassuming (pictured, in appearance every bit the law professor he is), Quebecer who just happens to be a legal information guru and totally dedicated to the public interest cause of his organization.

Daniel PoulinPoulin's baby is CANLII.org, a hip, spacious, kick-ass and, most important, intuitive legal information portal, faster than either of its two commercial Canadian competitors, Quicklaw or eCarswell, except that it's free!

With half a million cases on CanLII and given the state-of-the-art interface and speed and accuracy of searches, there ought to be a Nobel prize in it for Poulin's techies.

To be able to break into a Friday afternoon tavern meeting of Old Montreal barristers, say, late 80s, and explain what CANLII will would be within a mere 15 years, would be to invite cold beer en pleine face, especially if a managing partner was within range, as he would have signed the monthly cheque to Quicklaw or Soquij

But now, thanks to Poulin and his Lexum team, based out of the nondescript Faculty of Law of the University of Montreal, on the west side of Mount Royal, anyone with Internet access can, within seconds, have the full text of PEI's Law Society and Legal Profession Act (it's at canlii.org/pe/laws/sta/l-6/index.html) or the Supreme Court decision in R v. Mortgentaler, circa 1988 (it's at a stable URL, canlii.org/en/ca/scc/doc/1988/1988canlii90/1988canlii90.html).

CanLII and their partner, Lexum, which runs the Supreme Court's judicial database, have not set out to run any legal information cowboy out of town.

They came at it innocently.

See Internet.

Run, Internet, run.

They saw the future through legal profession needs, then public interest glasses, and not the lenses of dividends and profits.

It is - as Blackstone and Denning must smile from their graves - unbeatably free, and as accessible as the Internet.

As a world leader of which Canadians should be proud, Canlii has attracted copycats from around the world, although Australia's organization might argue that they broke champagne on the hull of their AustLII ship first (Austlii is also a law school initiative).

In Montreal, Kenya, Slovenia, Mexico, Solomon Islands ... one after the other, lined-up to remind "from where we come", and what we are fortunate enough to look at, in Canada, as the stone age of legal information.

Southern Africa LII tells of cloak and dagger all-nighters to scan judgments in Botswana.

Kenya, of picking up the pieces after a period of considerable political unrest, literally sending out an army of law students to collect what they could of hard-copy jurisprudence piled under dust in 18 depots across the land, and now boasting not only of a credible database but of, ah-hem, the Kenyan Law Reports, at kenyalaw.org.

In Vanuatu, the destruction by fire of the supreme court building also destroyed that country's only law library.

flag of Burkina FasoThe kicker was the story from Burkina Faso (flag pictured), a small West Africa landlocked country north of Ghana, of some 14-million. Juriburkina's representative said their judges raised the issue of anonymity re personal information in judgments, but not to protect the personal information about litigants: they sought the white-out of their names as judges!

The eloquent speaker from juriburkina.org was a lawyer who spoke candidly about the hard choices that are faced when he asks his government for money where health and social services infrastructure has so many seemingly more pressing needs. One can eadily appreciate the relative situation of Brkina Faso when the handout from the organization boasts of having "ten computers".

And then there are the stories reminiscent of Canada's recent pre-Canlii past, of a virtual monopoly by commercial or, in the case of Quebec, a publicly funded but pay-per-use repository of electronic access to judgments.

According to the Pacific Islands Legal Information Institute, the Government of Vanuatu will not release an electronic version of their statutes to PacLII so as to collect sales revenue. The revised statutes of Vanuatu is sold for $2,500 Canadian.

Re Slovenia, a young organizer of a Canlii-wannabe spoke of intense pressure from the domestic commercial publisher, reminding many in the field of the early days of CanLII and the now-defunct Canadian Legal Information.

Closer to home, Cornell University's LII, the USA free legal information site, goes head-to-head with private legal information giant Westlaw and Lexis, although they don't like it stated that way.

Legal information in this information age exposes much of "old meets new", when various national legal information systems are compared.

Even as a France law student has started up Jurispedia which, besides being a Wikipedia lookalike, has the amazing feature of being the only known website which has attracted Arab (and, presumably, Muslim) law articles, Canadians and Americans bemoan too much legal information, notably in reference to legal blogs (such as LawMag).

Justice Michel Bastarache of the Supreme Court of Canada revealed that the Court will host a digital-only hearing next year, as a test, with judges having to sit through the hearing without paper or pen. This, as the Court wrestles with the state-of-the-art decision whether to publish, online, secondary litigation documents: not just the judgment but the factums and briefs as well.

CanLII signAgain, this "news" has to be contrasted with the state of affairs in one African country (Kenya), where a recent anti-corruption crackdown resulted in the dismissal of no less than 23 judges. The South African representative spoke of Zimbabwan lawyers on the front line defending due process while under fire, literally.

But hence the beauty of Poulin's brainchild.

In the wake of CanLII, and with a bit of support from Canada, the USA and international organization such as the World Bank, smaller developing countries are fomenting their own legal information websites. True, compared with Canada or the USA, not as many of their inhabitants may have broadband access or even the same literacy rate, but it's a start.

And one necessary to a robust economy, although invisible to all but the trained eye.

Legal information is critical as is oil to an engine, ocean to the porpoise, as stability and predictability of contract to progress and peaceful society.

Teaching the population about the law and what the limits and expectations of the law are on individuals and corporations, is the raison d'etre of publishing any legal decision.

Access to justice has a number of glass ceilings for the lay-litigant. One is the cost of legal services. Another is the sheer complexity of the law. But one which CanLII's of the world are attacking like it was the Berlin Wall, circa 1989, is the accessibility of judgments and statutes.

And for that, there's no hammer better than CanLII.org.

Merci les gars!

Posted in Access to Justice and Legal Information, Internet & Intellectual Property
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