By Alan Kilpatrick
Late last year, Harvard Law announced it was involved in a project to digitize its entire collection of American case law. Harvard possesses one of the largest collections of American court decision in the world. The case law digitized during this “Free the Law” project is to be made freely available to anyone through an online searchable database by 2017. The project involves scanning over 40,000 law reports and textbooks, containing over 40 million pages of court decisions, from Harvard’s Law Library collection.
The project will improve access to justice in the United States by making legal information more open, accessible, and equitable. It will be beneficial to anyone needing to access American law: lawyers, academics, researchers, and the public. Currently, access to American case law is largely restricted to commercial subscription databases, like Westlaw and Quicklaw, that are prohibitively expensive. Access to the law should not be restricted to those select few who can afford the exorbitant subscription rates. In Canada, CanLII has been providing free access to Canadian law since 2001.
Jonathan Zittrain, a professor at Harvard Law, has recognised the special role law libraries play in digitizing and making case law accessible to all. “Libraries were founded as an engine for the democratization of knowledge, and the digitization of Harvard Law School’s collection of U.S. case law is a tremendous step forward in making legal information open and easily accessible to the public.” In January 2014, the Law Society of Saskatchewan Library partnered with Lexum and began work on a digitization project to provide complete coverage of Saskatchewan case law on CanLII. Over the past two years, the Law Society Library has digitized over 16000 Saskatchewan decisions. As a result of this project, CanLII now features a virtually complete record of all reported Saskatchewan case law back to 1905.
Law libraries are playing a crucial role in the efforts to make law more accessible and open.
Harvard Law Today. (2015). Harvard Law School Launches “Free the Law” Project with Ravel Law to Digitize US Case Law, Provide Free Access. Retrieved from http://today.law.harvard.edu/harvard-law-school-launches-free-the-law-project-with-ravel-law-to-digitize-us-case-law-provide-free-access/
Harvard Law School Library Blog. (2015). Free the Law – Overview. Retrieved from http://etseq.law.harvard.edu/2015/10/free-the-law-overview/
New York Times. (2015). Harvard Law Library Readies Trove of Decisions for Digital Age. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/29/us/harvard-law-library-sacrifices-a-trove-for-the-sake-of-a-free-database.html?_r=1
Slaw. (2015). What Does It Really Mean to “Free the Law”? Part 1. Retrieved from http://www.slaw.ca/2015/11/04/what-does-it-really-mean-to-free-the-law-part-1/