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1. The internet and the future of legal research

Subject-specific indexing and the internet

Law has the same problems as most other disciplines in relation to making effective use of the internet. We know that an enormous amount of legal information is being placed on the web, world-wide, but how can we create any effective mechanisms to assist people to find it?

This paper examines one attempt to use indexing tools to build a world-wide index of legal materials on the internet without the building or maintenance costs being prohibitive. `Indexing' is used in both senses - intellectual indexing and automated (word occurrence) indexing - and it is the interaction between the two that provides the element of sustainability or `future-proofing'.

The `world law library' already on the net

The internet's World-Wide-Web (`the web') presents a unique opportunity for lawyers and legal researchers from all parts of the world, but particularly those from developing countries, to obtain access to a world-wide law library at very low cost. `The web' has only become an important part of the internet since 1994 (due to the development of good browsing software which can display graphics), even in North America. In most parts of the word, access to the web has only become popular since 1996, or is not yet available.

Despite its recent arrival and limited world coverage, the web already contains an astonishing variety of legal materials from dozens of countries. The full text of all legislation from almost all the jurisdictions of the USA, Canada, Australasia and some European countries such as Norway is available, and extensive collections from many other European counties (such as the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal). Substantial collections of legislation are available from many other countries, including India, South Africa, Vietnam, Mongolia, Zambia, China, Mexico and Israel.

There are also extensive collections of case law, particularly from North America and Australasia and some European courts, but also courts from India, Korea, Brazil and other countries. The Parliaments of dozens of countries have web pages, and these contain many significant resources concerning legislation and law reform.

In addition, academic and other expert sources of legal commentary and interpretation is available on the web from many locations around the world, including specialist research centres on laws relating to subject matters which are of considerable interest to developing countries.

In almost all cases, access to this legal information is free, other than the telecommunications costs. While commercial legal publishers are starting to put `pay for use' legal materials on the web, this is in its infancy, and these commercial legal resources are outnumbered by the free-access legal materials that are made available by Parliaments, governments, courts, and `public legal information institutes' (often University-based) which are being developed around the world.

The World-Wide-Web therefore provides a unique opportunity for lawyers and legal researchers, no matter where they are located, to obtain affordable access to at least the basic elements of a world-wide law library - legislation, decisions of major courts, law reform reports and some expert commentary. This is a dream beyond the reach of all but the most well-resourced conventional (`print') law libraries of the world. For most of us, in both the developed and the developing world, it is the future of legal research.

Delivery of legal information

In addition to its benefits as a research tool, the benefits of the internet as a delivery mechanism for decisions and legislation must also be stressed. The United States Supreme Court has for some years now used the internet to distribute its opinions via internet as they are handed down (Project Hermes). The decisions of the Australian High Court are available within hours on the AustLII system.

Other courts have been quick to perceive the value of this delivery mechanism for the administration of justice. The United Kingdom Court of Appeal commented in Bannister v SGB plc 2http://www.open.gov.uk/lcd/order17.htm, its first decision to be published on the internet:

If this country was in the same happy position as Australia, where the administration of the law is benefiting greatly from the pioneering enterprise of the Australasian Legal Information Institute (AUSTLII), we would have been able to make this judgment immediately available in a very convenient electronic form to every judge and practitioner in the country without the burdensome costs that the distribution of large numbers of hard copies of the judgment will necessarily impose on public funds.

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