Free Law Project To Promote Access to Law, For Free

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Court opinions and records are in the public domain, and therefore open to the public, of course. But not for free – just try to secure a case from PACER. UC Berkeley School of Information assistant professor Brian Carver and UC Berkeley alumnus Michael Lissner have taken the law into their own hands, so to speak, and have formed a non-profit organization called the Free Law Project with the goal of providing free and easy to access legal content for download. As can be seen from their About page, the idea is:

  • to provide free, public, and permanent access to primary legal materials on the Internet for educational, charitable, and scientific purposes to the benefit of the general public and the public interest;
  • to develop, implement, and provide public access to technologies useful for legal research;
  • to create an open ecosystem for legal research and materials;
  • to support academic research on related technologies, corpora, and legal systems; and
  • to carry on other charitable activities associated with these purposes, including, but not limited to, publications, meetings, conferences, trainings, educational seminars, and the issuance of grants and other financial support to educational institutions, foundations, and other organizations exclusively for educational, charitable, and scientific purposes as allowed by law.

The end result will look much like other research tools, in that it will offer access to current and historical state and federal court decisions via search interface, with alerts, advanced search and citator services. Another cool thing, they will use open licenses for their software –  Juriscraper and CourtListener.  Because they are open, anyone can take the software and make it do more, better, faster, more awesomer things. For instance, the ultra-interesting Ravel Law has used the Free Law Project databases to shore up its own content.

It has always rubbed me the wrong way that court documents and judicial opinions are supposed to be open, public documents but that you can’t get them without paying a gatekeeper. This runs completely counter to how the Internet does and should work, IMHO. This principle is what activist Aaron Swartz gave his life to promote. Making money off of access to the law reminds me of paying for bottled water. Why? We already pay for the systems that generate the resource.

Kudos to Carver and Lissner for doing their part to break down those walled gardens.

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New in Google Scholar: Significant Citing Cases

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Use Google Scholar for your legal research? Then you may be happy to hear that the Scholar team has further refined the service to highlight significant cases that cite to a particular legal opinion. “Significant” means it discusses the cited case to a greater degree, maybe distinguishing or even rejecting or overturning it.

Scholar always provided citing documents, showing them in order of prominence. Now, in Scholar, those citing cases will be shown in order of significance. So, not unlike services like say Westlaw, citations are shown with the greatest discussion and treatment at the top, and the least at the bottom of the list. Scholar also marks the amount of discussion visually in three tiers. Citing cases that only cite the original case show no marking at all. The tiers are shown with horizontal hashes to the left of the case name.

To say this makes Scholar more useful would be an understatement – as Scholar adds more and more features, the dream of useful free legal research edges closer to reality.

Bringing Granular Search to Scholar

Cool new functionality available now in Google Scholar – you can  search within citations to an article! This is particularly helpful for sorting and sifting through the citations to particularly popular piece, like the example in the Google Scholar Blog article announcing the feature: Einstein’s famous paper Can quantum-mechanical description of physical reality be considered complete?. When you see the “Cited By ##”  in the search results in your Scholar search, click on it and you will get a new search box:

This allows you to actually search within the articles listed in the citation results so that you can get to the subsequent treatment you are looking for.

What does this mean for lawyers? After pulling up the U.S. Supreme Court Opinion in Meritor Savings Bank, FSB  v. Vinson (link here), I searched within the citations to find “same gender discrimination” and cut my list of citations from 7,258 to 30.

Take THAT, Westlaw and Lexis! Read more on this awesome research tool at the Google Scholar Blog (link here).

Fastcase: An iPhone Lawyer's Fast Friend

Last week I mentioned it, this week I review it. I have downloaded and have been playing with Fastcase’s new, FREE, iPhone application that offers a portal to a database of caselaw and statutes at your iPhone-bearing fingertips. New to Fastcase? From their site:

Fastcase is a next-generation, Web-based legal research service, that puts the complete national law library on your desktop anywhere you have Internet access.  Fastcase’s smarter searching, sorting, and visualization tools help you find the best answers fast – and help you find documents you might have otherwise missed.

Fastcase reaches back to volume 1, page 1 of the major federal reporters and also includes primary caselaw from the 50 states and statutes as well as other materials  via its Web interface. Fastcase had already positioned itself as the affordable, legal research option, free to many via bar memberships. Fastcase is sure to blow that particular part of the field wide open with its free legal research iPhone application, the first of its kind to hit the App Store.

The iPhone application uses the same process as Fastcase’s web-based application – a natural language and relevancy weighted search function. But Boolean search works too. What’s more, there is a citation analysis tool integrated into the search results. No need for an existing Fastcase account: I quickly filled out a form within the app, providing my name, company, job title, and log-in information and achieved full access immediately. In their welcoming email, they include an offer for a free trial of their web product (aaahhh, THERE’s the marketing hook.)

Fastcase lists the features of its app as follows:

  • Free, searchable library of American cases and statutes
  • Keyword (Boolean), natural language, and citation search
  • Browse or search statutes
  • Most relevant results first
  • Customizable search results that you can sort five different ways
  • Search results automatically display number of citing cases
  • Jump right to most relevant paragraph of any case or statute
  • Integrated research history
  • Save favorite documents for use later
  • Case law is updated regularly

Not bad for a free application.

Of course, I have opened and closed the doors and hood, kicked the tires a couple of times and have run a few searches. In a word, it delivers.

I entered my search query:

set my jurisdiction and date parameters,

and let it run. Thirty seconds later, my results showed up.

The relevancy-weighted algorithm assigns a relevance score to the case from 1 (not relevant) to 100 (right on point). Authority check shows via an orange button indicating how many times the case has been cited overall and how many times it has been cited by other cases in the search results. You get more details on the citing cases when you press the button.

When you click on a particular case, it brings up the header with both the official and West Reporter citations (cool!), docket number, court, parties and officiating judges. There are arrow buttons to scroll through the results list, a save button to save a particular case (which you can also copy, paste and email to yourself if you want to print 😉 ) and a “most relevant” button which brings you to your search terms. The case text is easy to read and it hypertext-links you to other cases cited within the text.  Footnotes are displayed at the end of the case.

A burning question in my mind is how quickly Fastcase gets decisions loaded into its database. I haven’t queried Fastcase themselves and my research did not disclose a clear answer.

Another potential drawback for frequent users of the Big Two premium legal research products is the lack of the editorial treatment in these cases – no headnotes, keynumbers of introductory paragraph summarizing the case posture and holding. This editorial treatment is the value-add the Big Two lean heavily upon in keeping their prices at the top of the range. The lack of these features in Fastcase and, consequently, their app, may dissuade some from using this tool for more than the occasional quick look-up while on the go. But I do have to commend Fastcase’s relevancy algorithm – in an area of law that I am VERY familiar with, Fastcase quickly showed some of the key cases right at the top of the results list. Impressive showing for the first, free, legal research app for a mobile platform.

I give Fastcase’s app a hearty two-thumbs up for both effective implementation and the surefire “kick-in-the-pants” this free tool will bring to this somewhat archaic, top-heavy industry.

Run. Don’t walk.

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Primary Legal Materials, FREE & On-Line. It’s About Time

Carl Malamud at O’Reilly Radar reports on Law.Gov, “America’s Open Source Operating System”. As st forth in the opening paragraph:

Public.Resource.Org is very pleased to announce that we’re going to be working with a distinguished group of colleagues from across the country to create a solid business plan, technical specs, and enabling legislation for the federal government to create Law.Gov. We envision Law.Gov as a distributed, open source, authenticated registry and repository of all primary legal materials in the United States. More details on the effort are available on our Law.Gov page.

Primary legal materials include case law and statutes.

For years, easy access to these materials has been tied up in paid gateways tended by private publishing houses. This has NEVER made sense to me. Why can’t we have a system offering superior access to this free content? The powers behind Law.Gov apparently agree and are working towards that end.  Let the money makers focus on their secondary materials and expert commentary. Case law and statutory law accessible and on-line are necessary components of an open government, a result we all should embrace.

Primary Legal Materials, FREE & On-Line. It's About Time

Carl Malamud at O’Reilly Radar reports on Law.Gov, “America’s Open Source Operating System”. As st forth in the opening paragraph:

Public.Resource.Org is very pleased to announce that we’re going to be working with a distinguished group of colleagues from across the country to create a solid business plan, technical specs, and enabling legislation for the federal government to create Law.Gov. We envision Law.Gov as a distributed, open source, authenticated registry and repository of all primary legal materials in the United States. More details on the effort are available on our Law.Gov page.

Primary legal materials include case law and statutes.

For years, easy access to these materials has been tied up in paid gateways tended by private publishing houses. This has NEVER made sense to me. Why can’t we have a system offering superior access to this free content? The powers behind Law.Gov apparently agree and are working towards that end.  Let the money makers focus on their secondary materials and expert commentary. Case law and statutory law accessible and on-line are necessary components of an open government, a result we all should embrace.