It’s said that the lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. That stipulated, it’s going to be much easier for individuals and small organizations to get their day in court thanks to a new project from the Harvard Law School Library.

The library is scanning its entire collection, one book at a time, into a database. “We estimate there are 42,000 volumes and 40 million pages to scan,” write Suzanne Wones and Meg Kribble in the Harvard Law School Library Update. “We’re scanning at a rate of 400–600,000 pages per week and thanks to work done in the pilot and proof-of-concept phases, we hit the 10-million-page milestone on September 17.”

The collection comprises 40,000 books, from even before the Revolutionary War. “Its trove includes nearly every state, federal, territorial and tribal judicial decision since colonial times,” writes Erik Eckholm in the New York Times. “It is the most comprehensive and authoritative database of American law and cases available anywhere except for the Library of Congress, containing binding judicial decisions from the federal government and each of the fifty states, from the founding of each respective jurisdiction,” according to Harvard Law Today.

Once completed, the “Free the Law” project will give anyone free access to the database. And the database is more than just a list of cases. It includes search functionality, so people can look for all the case law on a particular subject (the example given being campaign finance). Moreover, a visualization tool shows all the cases on a timeline and through the various degrees of court, and also shows the linkages between all the various cases. In other words, if one case is cited by another case, there’s a line connecting them, and the visualization changes in real time as you scroll over them.

The law has traditionally lagged behind technology. The Supreme Court, for example, just announced in January of this year that it intended to put its files online, a project that is expected to be completed next year. Similarly, the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) court database still looks much like it did when it was first designed in the early 2000s. (And, to make matters worse, the system has been deleting files as they age.)

What’s innovative about the Free the Law project is not just its technology, but the fact that the data will be free. While the online Supreme Court system is intended to be free for users, PACER has been criticized for its cost as much as for its outmoded technology.

“Though the primary documents are formally in the public domain, many are not put online in a convenient format, if at all,” writes Eckholm. “Many states even rely on commercial services to post court briefs and decisions, which then provide them to paying subscribers. Legal groups spend anywhere from thousands of dollars a year, for a small office, to millions, for a giant firm, using commercial services.”

Complete state results will become publicly available this fall for California and New York, and the entire library will be online in 2017, Eckholm writes. The entire underlying database will be shared with nonprofit organizations and scholars that wish to develop specialized applications, and the database will be withheld from other commercial groups for eight years, he adds.

In particular, the project is intended to help support various legal aid societies that ensure the indigent get their day in court, writes Olivia Lowenberg in the Christian Science Monitor. “Harvard Law School already offers free legal aid for indigent persons, through its student-run Legal Aid Bureau,” she writes. “When ‘Free the Law’ is completed, it will not only allow those second- and third-year students who run the program to search for cases similar to their own with greater ease, but also improve the argument-making ability of lawyers at other legal aid groups throughout the country.” And a number of those organizations said the Harvard project was “a welcome development that may save them money and make the law more accessible to struggling lawyers, students and even inmates who try to mount appeals from spotty prison libraries,” Eckholm writes.

It’s also said that the wheels of justice turn slowly. Law and the courts may be late to electronic documentation, but it’s not too late for them to reap its benefits.


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