Saturday, April 04, 2009

Free access to law movement

One of the exciting world wide movements promoting free access to law is spearheaded from Australia. The Australasian Legal Information Institute hosts This website allows free access to most of the Australian legal resources, including legislation and decisions of the High Court of Australia [the Highest court in Australia]. They have devised standard notation for citing case law that is uniformly followed throughout Australia, with most of the Courts sending in the judgments and transcripts of proceedings to in standard formats. Legislation is reported to the site by the attorneys who represent the state.

Austlii success also led initiatives in England creating Worldlii site provides access to legal information in other jurisdictions. Legal information institutes of the world, meeting in Montreal, in October 2002 declared that:

* Public legal information from all countries and international institutions is part of the common heritage of humanity. Maximising access to this information promotes justice and the rule of law;
* Public legal information is digital common property and should be accessible to all on a non-profit basis and free of charge;
* Independent non-profit organisations have the right to publish public legal information and the government bodies that create or control that information should provide access to it so that it can be published.

Involvement of professors of law, attorneys, judges and a host of sponsors from the business and legal community make the initiative possible. Some accounts giving details of the work done by various volunteers and enthusiasts are available. A few snips from interesting speeches and material published online:

The Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales (Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers) in his Valedictory Address for Lord Justice Brooke [2006] EWCA Civ B1 (27 July 2006) said:

On the Bench Henry worked tirelessly with the Lord Chancellor's Department (latterly the Department of Constitutional Affairs) on schemes for the introduction of IT into the court system -- schemes that alas all too often have fallen at the fence of implementation through lack of funds. Legal Technology News accurately stated that Lord Justice Brooke was "one of the most computer literate judges on the bench of any court on either side of the Atlantic today" with the advantage of being a realist "rather than a techno-enthusiast forever jumping on to every new gizmo band wagon that rolls along".

I would need the assistance of a computer to keep track of the various IT committees on which Henry Brooke has served during the nineteen years that he has been striving to bring the court's IT into first the 20th and latterly the 21st century -- although it might be more truthful to say that the efforts are still to bring the standards up to those of the last century. He was the first judge to be a full member of a Court Service Board, and, in 2001, because of his unparalleled experience, he was appointed by Lord Woolf as Judge in charge of Modernisation (JIM for short). He has described his experience in this area as "snakes and ladders". The promise of £1.1 billion for IT for criminal courts -- up a ladder. The promise of £260 million for IT in the civil courts -- a further ladder. Superb team work between civil servants and judges -- and in this context Mr Justice Cresswell deserves special mention -- in preparing the programmes for modernisation -- up a long ladder -- and then, wham, down a huge snake, the withdrawal of the majority of the funding.

Despite this, there have been some advances -- the computerised claims production centre at Northampton, Money Claims Online, Possession Claims Online, the LINK system, XHIBIT (although not all agree that this deserved the priority it received), and the provision of lap-tops and IT facilities for judges. So the industry of Henry and those who have worked with him at the IT coalface has borne some fruit.

Allied to his enthusiasm for IT has been his determination that the public should have free access to judgments as soon as they have been approved by the court. In 1999 he chaired a meeting in London which led to the formation of the multi-disciplinary "Free the Law" movement and to his taking the Chair of BAILII (the British and Irish Legal Information Institute) which has achieved so much in this area.

These activities would be more than enough to provide a full workload for most people, but Henry has done them in his spare time. His mainstream activities included chairing the Law Commission in the three years 1993, 1994 and 1995. This important post requires the highest intellectual ability and knowledge of the law, coupled with leadership and administrative skills. You can see why Mr Justice Brooke was selected for the job. It has also traditionally earned the holder swift promotion to the Court of Appeal on relinquishing the chair. Thus, in 1996, though not quite as swiftly as he deserved, Henry was promoted to the Court of Appeal.

The contribution that he has made to jurisprudence in that court, particularly since he has been presiding, has been immense, reflecting his learning in the law and powers of analysis...

The legal fraternity even today takes pride in the trappings of office: majestic buildings, robes, flowery language, etc. It is hilarious to read this part of the above speech!

It takes a little time to get to know Henry Brooke. His clerk, Elizabeth, sent me a note which says: "He wears his robes like a catwalk model -- off the shoulder". He has a slightly craggy exterior and an unruly and unruled head of hair (which is one of the more cogent arguments for wigs in the Court of Appeal), and which can even lead to an impression of slight disorganisation.

If so, the impression is totally misleading. No one, who does not have a rigid self-discipline, could achieve even half of the contribution that Henry Brooke makes, and from his earliest days in the law has made, to so many different aspects of the administration of justice in this country. When you come to know him, you also become aware of his sense of values, his humanity and his care for his fellow men and women.

One may only humbly agree with the Chief Justice that the contributions by Sir Henry Brooke have added greater glory to the institution more than any of the other trappings. The effort to use technology in meaningful ways is never easy, as Mr Stephen Hockman, QC, observed in the farewell to Lord Justice Brooke:

At the same time, as I suspect most people will be aware, Henry Brooke was making increasing use of technology in the cases which he tried. His practice was to engage in proactive case-management through the use of e-mail. Many a Member of the Bar, and perhaps even of the Judiciary, who has received an e-mail from Henry timed at some unearthly hour, perhaps even well after midnight, with the self-effacing but inaccurate explanation later proffered that it was probably due to an error in the time clock on the computer. Such stories, I venture to say, illustrate both his dedication and his essential modesty.

Laurie J West-Knights QC, co-founded along with Lord Saville and Sir Henry Brooke. It was originally maintained by LJW-K QC, personally, at The story of the initiative used to be available there, but not any longer. One gets to read about LJW-K, QC, at The point to be noted is that it takes only a few spirited individuals to bring about spectacular changes.

In India, NIC has taken several initiatives, and a wealth of information relating to legislation and case-law are freely available. But, there are no standard notations that enable citing case-law published at the NIC servers before courts. Again, many proprietary software tools are used in India, in sharp contrast to austlii that uses its own in-house software to index information. (The technical details about tools used by austlii are available here)

Porting law to computers as code executable by machines would be the next logical step. India has a rich tradition in not only computing and mathematics, but satya and dharma (truth and rule of law) as well. We should take a lot more initiative to make the porting possible within a decade from now.

[2] Graham Greenleaf (University of New South Wales - Faculty of Law), Philip Chung (University of Technology, Sydney - Faculty of Law) and Andrew Mowbray (University of Technology, Sydney - Faculty of Law), Emerging Global Networks for Free Access to Law: World LII's Strategies,