3. The changing environment
The major change in the internet legal publishing environment is the
diversification of publishing sources, which has consequences for effective
access by users, and funding consequences for AustLII.
There are many reasons why government bodies and courts (`institutions') will
increasingly publish their own primary legal information via the internet -
At present, there are few Australian institutions publishing
their own primary legal materials on the web. Some Australian Parliaments
publish Bills before them, Victorian legislation is availablehttp://www.dms.dpc.vic.gov.au/],
and a few tribunals publish some of their own decisions. No courts do so as
yet. This will gradually change over the next few years.
Users also now have a choice of internet publishers other than AustLII who
offer multiple sources of primary legal materials, with different forms of
value-adding than that offered by AustLII:
- Understanding of web publishing technology is now much broader; though
this is often limited and does not extend to use of search engines.
- Institutions want to control `their' data.
- Institutions can provide `authoritative' copies through use of digital
- Institutions can provide speed of access to their own data that others
should not forget that there is already an enormous amount of valuable
secondary Australian legal information published on the internet - government
reports, parliamentary materials, law journals, conference papers on law firms'
home pages and many other sources. As yet, effective means of access to this
enormous diffuse range of material has not been provided, despite the value of
internet-wide search engines such as Alta Vista.
An environmental change that we notice is the constantly changing and
increasing expectations of users concerning the quality of free legal
information via the web. In 1995 users were delighted to obtain High Court
decisions on the web after only a few months. Now, a delay of a few hours after
the Court hands down a decision is enough for AustLII to receive `feedback'
mail asking `why isn't decision X available yet, as it has been out for hours?'.
The most unpredictable environmental element in relation to the free provision
of legal information by legal institutions themselves, or by government legal
publishers, are the recurring currents of `privatisation', `outsourcing' and
`user pays', all of which make any free access provision of legal information
by these public bodies unreliable in the medium term (let alone the long term).
No free access provision of legal information by a public body can be
guaranteed to continue, particularly if it is valuable because it is the only
source of that data.
- Commercial legal publishers (at present primarily Butterworths Onlinehttp://www.butterworths.com.au/]
but this will soon change) already provide an enormous amount of Australian
primary materials, with the principal value adding being their high level of
editorial control, plus content enhancements such as catchwords, headnotes, and
- Public sector publishers, to date mainly the Commonwealth
Attorney-General's SCALE+ servicehttp://scaleplus.law.gov.au/]
and the AGPS Osiris service for industrial law, are now providing via the web a
large percentage of the information previously available via internet only
from AustLII. They are increasingly providing different and rapidly improving
forms of value-adding to that provided by AustLII, so users now have a choice
between `competing' technical alternatives.
A major problem with privatisation or outsourcing of provision of primary legal
information is that it can easily be irreversible. When CLIRS created databases
of NSW case law behind the protection of a government-backed monopoly in the
1980s, it not only prevented the development of any competitive commercial
databases, but retarded the NSW Supreme Court's own development of a collection
of computerised case law in public hands for over a decade. See `The Politics
of Public Legal Information'http://ltc.law.warwick.ac.uk/jilt/LegInfo/97_2gree/paper4.htm]
in the AustLII Papers.
If legal institutions do increasingly `self publish', or there develops a
multiplicity of public sector publishers, this has serious consequences for
by legal institutions, and alternative public sector publishers, also has
consequences for AustLII's financial viability:
- Effective legal research will be impeded by a multiplicity of
locations, formats and search engines. Users will have difficulty obtaining
effective and comprehensive access, even to free data. Distributed legal data
presents severe research problems, both in terms of precision and recall.
Existing indexes to law on the internet, and `internet-wide' search engines,
fail to provide a solution to this problem (either in Australia or world wide)
as detailed in Part B of this paper.
- There will be a temptation to institutions to deny other publishers the
right to carry the data, since they are `already providing free access'. A
restrictive approach will help maximise their usage, and will prevent critical
comparison with other versions of the same data.
- There will be a temptation to institutions to try to charge for
access, since publishing costs money.
- Institutions that provide their own data free via internet are unlikely to
be `stakeholders' supporting AustLII's funding.
- General AustLII funding sources may be less inclined to support provision
of any data via AustLII if some other free source (or even a commercial source)