Internet Newsletter for Lawyers
July/August 2003, by Delia Venables

A Review of FirstLaw
by Nuala Byrne, Librarian, Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, Dublin

FirstLaw (www.firstlaw.ie), the brainchild of Bart D. Daly, BL, is a must for anyone who needs access to an up-to-date, reliable source of Irish primary legal material on a regular basis.

Bart Daly is very well respected in Ireland as a legal publisher. He committed himself to providing Irish primary materials in electronic format when they were unavailable elsewhere. He was also instrumental in reviving the "Pink Sheets" which is an index of Supreme Court and High Court written judgments. These are available for 2001 and 2002 free of charge from the opening page of the FirstLaw web site.

firstlaw home page

FirstLaw is an electronic online subscription service that gives access to Irish primary legal materials. It is a niche product and although it may not have access to a major series of law reports or major legal journal titles, and coverage may not include US or other common law jurisdiction content, it provides access to the basic materials required by Irish legal practitioners. FirstLaw gives access to the statutes and statutory instruments from 1999 and unreported judgments of the superior and other courts from 1999. It also provides a Current Awareness service that tracks and digests legislation, judgments and relevant national and international news articles. It is updated daily and is backed up by a weekly email alert service. The week's content is emailed to subscribers every Monday and Wednesday.

Unreported Judgments

Thomas O'Malley, in Sources of Law: An Introduction to legal research and writing (2nd edition, 2001), said:
"Accuracy, currency and comprehensiveness are the hallmarks of good law reporting. Irish law reports have a good reputation for accuracy, but the same cannot be said of their currency, less still of their comprehensiveness."

All judgments are unreported judgments until they appear in a law report series and even for those judgments that are reported, this may take some time. A judgment is chosen for reporting because it contributes to the development of the law. However, many important Irish judgments remain unreported. Lexis gives access to Irish unreported judgments from 1985 but these are not comprehensive.

Although FirstLaw only gives access to the reports from 1999 onwards, they are timely and they are comprehensive. Usually they appear within one to two weeks of them being made available from the Courts Service. They also include a head note of the case, which provides added value for the user.

FirstLaw contains, from 1999, unreported, written judgments of the Supreme Court, High Court, Court of Criminal Appeal, and Court Martial Appeal Courts. Selected Circuit Court judgments are also available. The coverage also includes Competition Authority decisions, selected Employment Appeal Tribunal decisions and European Court of Justice decisions. In addition to the superior courts, these other decisions are becoming important in the development of case law. A larger archive of these judgments would prove invaluable.

Legislation

Acts and Statutory Instruments are available from 1999. Coverage is complete and an abstract of each Act or SI is provided. This is a useful feature and distinguishes it from other available online sources of legislation. Although fuller archives are freely available elsewhere on the Web, FirstLaw, being updated daily, does have the advantage of being up-to-date.

Current Awareness

The Daily Update updates case law, legislation and news items on a daily basis. The news service provides national and international news articles. Again a brief summary of the content of the article is provided with a link to its full text. The full text of the article further provides a link to its original source. If the original source is a subscription service further access is not available without having a subscription.

The News service appears to cover back to late 2001. It is not specified how far back it does go. Although not very scientific, by trawling through the results pages of a search for a common term, I established 2001 as being the probable date. It would also be useful to know what news sources are being covered. The option of a personalised/customised service might also prove attractive.

User Friendliness

Despite its very useful content, the look and feel of FirstLaw has been underdeveloped and thus the service loses as a result. In my opinion, there is a need for more guidance and directional information for the user.

The Welcome to FirstLaw page although giving some information on the service, does not give the impression that the user is at the opening page of the service. The Next button at the bottom of the page looks as if it is taking the user into an application for a free trial of FirstLaw rather than into the main pages of the service.

Beyond the opening page there are no help buttons or directional instructions on screen to point the user on their way. Other than the information provided on the first page there does not appear to be information on the content or coverage provided by FirstLaw.

Searching

Once past the Welcome page, one can access the search function directly by clicking on the Search link in the panel on the left of the page. All documents may be searched or Acts, SIs or Unreported judgments may be chosen for searching separately. The Acts, SIs and Unreported judgments may also be viewed or searched by clicking on their link, also in the panel on the left of the page.

The Advanced search option is probably the better option to choose for searching. The link to access this is on the basic search page. The advanced search allows the user to refine their search by type of document, by date, by FirstLaw ID, by court, by Judge, abstract or case title. Here it is possible to include spelling or word variations or link it to the thesaurus. It is also possible to retrieve documents by relevance or by date and to use the Boolean operators "and" and "or".

It is also possible to specify the number of documents retrieved. This is set to 25 by default. This is a useful option if only the most relevant documents are required but beware, by leaving this set at 25, only 25 will be retrieved. It does not mean only 25 will be displayed per page.

From the basic search screen I feel there is a need for more help and guidance. Tips on entering search terms would prove useful to the user. From the basic search screen it is not clear whether the usual search functions such as Boolean operators (and, or, not), word stemming, truncation and so on are supported. Only when searching from the Advanced search page is it clear that these functions are available.

On carrying out a search, a list of successful hits appears on screen. Again I thought more information could be provided for the user. For example, it does not say how many documents were retrieved or how the results are displayed. In the Advanced search one can choose to display results by date or by relevance but from the basic search screen this is not clear. Results are sorted by relevance and to the left of the list of results a small grey square is displayed. By hovering the mouse over this square the relevance percentage appears.

Conclusion

FirstLaw may not have the scope of content or coverage of some of the larger services, but what it does provide is directly relevant to the Irish legal profession. Its reliability and currency are its particularly strong features.

At approximately one-third of the price of some of the larger services it does provide value for money. In fact some of the information such as the "Pink Pages" is free. In addition, only when one goes to view a document is one required to log on, thus it is possible to see what is there, including some basic information about the document, without actually being able to access it.

For access to an extremely reliable and up-to-date service, directly relevant to Irish legal practitioners, FirstLaw is the one to have.

Nuala Byrne has been the Law Librarian of the Director of Public Prosecutions in Dublin since 2001. The Library is on two sites, with 6 staff members. Before that, she was Business Librarian at Dublin City University.
Email nbyrne@dppireland.ie.

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