Free and Easy Access to Law
Over the last few years a number of free and easy-to-use databases have been
developed, designed to help lawyers find the law. These databases have often identified
a niche activity which the big, commercial providers have overlooked. To fall within the
criteria for inclusion in this article the sites should not carry the law itself, but direct users
to where the law may be found, by means of indexes, catalogues, databases, lists, or
training materials. This article is a personal selection of twelve resources which offer the
most assistance to lawyers in finding the law.
By Peter Clinch
Internet for Lawyers
Internet for Lawyers (www.vts.rdn.ac.uk/tutorial/lawyers) will appeal to those new to
searching the internet for law or who have responsibilities for training in law firms. It is a
free, ‘teach yourself' tutorial, that lets users practise their Internet Information Skills at
their own pace. Although devised for law students and funded by higher education, Sue
Pettit, Subject Librarian for Law, Wills Memorial Library, University of Bristol, has
developed a series of tutorials which will appeal to practising and academic lawyers alike.
Tutorials cover such topics as Internet Orientation: understanding the nature of the
Internet and its potential value in law work, developing effective internet information
seeking skills, thinking critically about and evaluating what lawyers can find on the
internet, and how to ‘read' web addresses. If any topic does not appeal, the design of the
tutorial makes it easy to skip irrelevant sections.
A ‘Links Basket' allows users of the tutorials to make a personal collection of URLs
relevant to their interests. The contents of the ‘Basket' can be printed out or added to
your own lists of Favorites or Bookmarks. For trainers, there is a teachers' pack with
downloadable files of workbooks, and a PowerPoint presentation for use in training
Legal Resources in the UK and Ireland
Having mastered how to use the internet effectively, the value of law portals will be plain.
Probably the best known is Legal Resources in the UK and Ireland devised by Delia
Venables (www.venables.co.uk). The site is a veritable cornucopia of links, with an
accent on those of benefit to the practitioner rather than the academic. The thousands
of links to law internet sites are arranged under four main headings: Information for
Individuals, Lawyers, Companies and Primarily for Students. Each site is described in a
few lines, briefly yet succinctly, and for a few an occasional evaluative comment is added.
The ‘New on the Internet' feature is a valuable updating service.
LawLinks: Legal Information on the Internet
While Delia concentrates on sites of value to practitioners, Sarah Carter's site at the
University of Kent (library.ukc.ac.uk/library/lawlinks/default.htm) provides links to sites of
value to academic lawyers. The site has won a number of awards and is attractively
Sarah also includes links to sites for EU, international law and the law of a range of
foreign jurisdictions. In fact, there is very little overlap in coverage between Delia's and
Sarah's sites, and between them these two law portals provide lawyers with excellent
routemaps for research.
Nick Holmes' Infolaw website (www.infolaw.co.uk) is the longest established UK legal
gateway. The site is especially noted for its Lawfinder search service which indexes over
80,000 Acts, SIs, cases, procedural forms and precedents, other official documents, EU
legislation and treaties. The range of materials covered by Nick is far wider than any of
the commercial databases. However, this service is free only for a 30 day trial period.
Nevertheless, there are other reasons for using the site: particularly Law Resources, the
extensive subject lists of web links to over 700 sites with substantial law content.
Swarbrick's Case Index
Another long established free internet database to assist researching UK law is David
Swarbrick's Case Law Index (www.swarb.co.uk/#lawindex). It now contains a free index
to a small selection of more than 55,000 cases indexed since 1995 with links to over
43,000 full text judgments. The strength of the index lies in the selection of material,
obviously focused at the law practitioner. To access the complete index users need to
register and subscribe on the lawindexpro part of the site.
Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations
For the next site, I admit to a large personal involvement in its creation. One of the most
common queries that library and information staff receive is: what does this legal
abbreviation mean? In June 2003, the Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations
(www.legalabbrevs.cardiff.ac.uk) was launched. It is a free web site with a searchable
index to over 12,000 abbreviations used to refer to over 7,000 publications. The
jurisdictional coverage is wide: UK, Commonwealth, United States, Europe, international,
foreign and comparative law.
The Cardiff Index is unlike paper-based indexes to abbreviations in at least two major
respects: first, you do not need to carefully enter the correct punctuation for an
abbreviation to find the title. The software strips out punctuation and is not case sensitive.
The Index returns the best matches for the information provided. Second, it is possible
to search both from an abbreviation to find the title and also from a title to find its
abbreviation. Where a preferred abbreviation for a publication has been discovered, this
is mentioned. It is clear from the long lists of alternative abbreviations for some the most
popular publications, that there is a need for the creation of internationally agreed
standards for legal abbreviations.
Having discovered what an abbreviation means, lawyers may need help to cite the
particular type of legal literature correctly in memoranda, opinions and litigation.
Oxford Standard Citation of Legal Authorities
Although devised by Oxford University Law Faculty, the Oxford Standard Citation of Legal
Authorities (OSCOLA) (www.law.ox.ac.uk/oscola/index.shtml) will be of value to any
lawyer who cares about communicating in writing effectively, consistently and with
convenience for the reader. The site presents standards for ‘a system of citation and
presentational style for use in legal writing, covering abbreviation, punctuation,
cross-referencing, the use of headings, and other topics… It is the closest that the UK
has to what in the US is known as the Blue Book' and in Canada: the Red Book.
It covers much more than how to cite legal material correctly, and includes standards on
presentation and layout (creating hierarchies of headings, using footnotes, how to set out
quotations, how to refer to numbers and dates). It is produced in two versions: Bigoscola
which runs to over 100 pages of standards and guidance, and Littleoscola, a 32 page
summary. The site and its standards will prove valuable to lawyers responsible for
compiling or editing in-house or client newsletters and even training new entrants to the
profession in the skills of good writing and presentation.
The next two sites take a geographically wider view of finding the law. Eagle-i
(ials.sas.ac.uk/links/eagle-i.htm) promotes itself as ‘the law gateway offering global legal
information'. Links are provided to web sites covering the substantive law of well over 100
jurisdictions and all the major international and inter-governmental organisations. Also
featured is a subject index to web law resources of interest to international lawyers.
Eagle-i is the jumping-off point to access a huge range of resources of interest to lawyers
with interests in international, foreign and comparative law. The site is maintained by the
Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (IALS), University of London, the foremost UK library
covering these subject areas.
Social Science Information Gateway (SOSIG)
A link from Eagle-i leads to the SOSIG Law Gateway (www.sosig.ac.uk/law). This is a
catalogue of internet sites of relevance to the social sciences, law and business. The
accent is on including high quality web resources and providing users of the web
catalogue with a critical evaluation of the content of each resource. Law has its own
Gateway, edited jointly by the IALS and University of Bristol Law Library. The jurisdictional
coverage is wide, covering over 200 countries as well as international law. Over 3,500
law web sites are included and the number is growing by more than 50 per month. There
are several ways to search: either by typing in keywords or following links from the home
page to hierarchical lists of web resources. In addition the site provides Grapevine, a
'community notice board' for law, detailing forthcoming law conferences, courses, events,
as well as Likeminds, a professional contact service for lawyers.
Foreign Law Guide (FLAG)
The next two sites are of use to lawyers seeking information on foreign and international
law. Again, I admit to having played a considerable part in the creation of the first site: the
FLAG database (ials.sas.ac.uk/library/flag/flag.htm). FLAG stands for Foreign Law Guide.
It is a web inventory of the collections of foreign, comparative and international law
materials held in UK universities, the British Library, the Inns of Court and the Public
Record Office, Kew. It is not a union catalogue or listing. It describes the contents of
different collections noting shelf marks and providing web links to each of the libraries
included in the database.
It is important to remember that there are still some countries of the world which have
very few law resources freely available on the internet. This is especially true for law
made in the pre-internet era or made in developing countries. FLAG identifies where in
the UK, paper versions of law from earliest times to the present, for over 200 countries
and over 60 international organisations, is held.
The database is not intended to indicate who holds the issues of a particular serial, e.g.
Queensland Reports. But by searching for the country: Australia, the state: Queensland,
and the general material type: Court Reports, it will tell you which libraries have
collections of court reports for Queensland.
Foreign Law Research (FLARE)
The Foreign Law Research (FLARE) site has only recently gone live, but for lawyers
interested in foreign law it should prove invaluable as its content develops. FLARE
(ials.sas.ac.uk/flare/flare.htm) aims to improve the coverage and accessibility of foreign
legal materials at the UK national level and enhance expertise in their use. Its work is
currently focused on improving national coverage of the law of the transition states of
Central and Eastern Europe and building a distributed national collection of Official
In many countries, the Official Gazette (OG) contains the authoritative text of legislation
and much valuable administrative material, such as government notices, circulars,
announcements. Some libraries in the UK collect OG and yet it can be difficult for a
researcher to discover whether the OG for a particular country is held in any library in the
UK. FLAG, mentioned above, includes references to holdings of OG only where the parts
of the publication held contain legislation or court reports. FLARE has begun to publish
on its web site a Union List of holdings of European Legal Gazettes in major research
libraries. It is also producing a series of Research Guides to the law of central and
Eastern European jurisdictions.
Current Legal Research Topics
The final site is, perhaps, of more specialist interest. The Current Legal Research Topics
Database (ials.sas.ac.uk/library/clrt/clrt.htm) provides details of research into the law
being undertaken at the present time by postgraduate research students (MPhil and PhD)
in British university law schools. The database can be searched either by any keyword
in the title of the dissertation, or subject keywords, or the name of the student undertaking
the research or the name of the university in which the research is taking place. The
database is updated annually and is on the web site of the Institute of Advanced Legal
Studies, University of London.
I admit that the balance of sites mentioned in this article is biased rather towards those
serving the academic law community. If a practitioner is stirred by my list to write an
article featuring a more practice-based selection, I am sure the editor of the Newsletter
will be pleased to receive copy to redress the imbalance.
Dr Peter Clinch has been active in legal information work and research skills training for
over 25 years. He is the author of three books on the topics and currently is Information
Specialist-Law in the Information Services Division of Cardiff University.
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