Today’s New York Times reports on what has the potential to be a revolutionary development in access to legal materials for access to justice.
Now, in a digital-age sacrifice intended to serve grand intentions, the Harvard librarians are slicing off the spines of all but the rarest volumes and feeding some 40 million pages through a high-speed scanner. They are taking this once unthinkable step to create a complete, searchable database of American case law that will be offered free on the Internet, allowing instant retrieval of vital records that usually must be paid for.
“Improving access to justice is a priority,” said Martha Minow, dean of Harvard Law School, explaining why Harvard has embarked on the project. “We feel an obligation and an opportunity here to open up our resources to the public.” (BlogNote: it is nice to see Dean Minow using access to justice in such a broad sense.)
And, again from the Times.
Complete state results will become publicly available this fall for California and New York, and the entire library will be online in 2017, said Daniel Lewis, chief executive and co-founder of Ravel Law, a commercial start-up in California that has teamed up with Harvard Law for the project. The cases will be available at www.ravellaw.com. Ravel is paying millions of dollars to support the scanning. The cases will be accessible in a searchable format and, along with the texts, they will be presented with visual maps developed by the company, which graphically show the evolution through cases of a judicial concept and how each key decision is cited in others.
Note that Ravel now offers an open plan and broader priced plans.
Also from the Times:
Under the agreement with Harvard, the entire underlying database, not just limited search results, will be shared with nonprofit organizations and scholars that wish to develop specialized applications. Ravel and Harvard will withhold the database from other commercial groups for eight years. After that, it will be available to anyone for any purpose, said Jonathan L. Zittrain, a Harvard Law professor and director of the law library.
That may be the key. It raises the possibility of a wide variety of front ends, or full systems, that are customized for self-represented litigants seeking information and help in various kinds of environments, such as libraries, court self-help centers, online, at self-help appellate clinics, in both short and long term.
Its time to open up a discussion about what such interfaces should look like, including how they can be as accessible as possible and provide information focused on what people need to help them navigate their case and the courtroom. At this point for example, very few self-help programs on or offline offer links to the small number of leading cases on the topics that self-represented litigants actually engage with. One way to deal with this would be to ask the trial judges which cases they are most guided by in each kind of case, and make these easily available.
More ambitiously, one might be able to develop search algorithms that found for litigants the cases closest to the facts they cited in their pleadings. Similarly, it might be possible for self-help materials to contain pre-loaded searches to provide information on any newly decided relevant cases.
There are obviously particularly powerful partnering opportunities for public law libraries, indeed all libraries, and for courts that operate broad networks of self-help services. That this is starting in NY and California is obviously particularly opportune.
One early analytic step will be to think about when and for what purposes the self-represented actually need and would gain from access to the cases. While, some might think that such access would be more confusing than helpful, I trust that this is not true, or rather that is will only be true when the system is much simpler, and the help resources much more comprehensive and up to date.) Anyway, that’s yet one more thing we need to research
In any event, this all offers a huge opportunity, and I hope the access community will start a very serious exploration of how to take advantage of it. (At the risk of again repeating the obvious, I can not resist pointing out that this opportunity provides yet another argument for improving our coordination, division of labor, and innovation focusing capacities.)
Please suggest how this opportunity might be moved forward, and your ideas for tools and applications using this huge resource.