Freeing the Law

Photo Credit - Harvard Gazette

Photo Credit - Harvard Gazette

Harvard Law School and Ravel Law announced last week that they will be digitizing Harvard's entire collection of case law and making it available online for free. This is a huge step in the right direction for more transparency and access to the legal system. Currently, most case law is only available in digital form through expensive search engines like WestLaw and LexisNexis. In most cases, solo attorneys and even small firms cannot afford the enormous search costs charged by these providers, much less the average person. This gives large law firms a huge advantage. 

Over the last month, I've learned about what a mess the filing systems in court houses are. Keeping in line with the legal profession, technology is slow to catch-on. To pull a case in most court houses in Georgia, one must first have the case name, search for the case number in a computer at the Court House. Take that case number to the clerk who goes and digs it out of large file drawer in the back. You're then charged for each copy you may need. Not to mention, every single court house in the State uses a completely different system. How's that for consistency? Several Georgia courts have switched to e-filing and cases can be found using the case number, but many of the records are incomplete. 

Not only is case law difficult to get, it's often times even more difficult to read and understand. Complaints, summons, motions, discovery documents, orders. If you haven't been to law school (or even if you have), odds are many of the words sound foreign and the significance of certain documents or case law remains hidden. 

The public absolutely needs access to case law. But they also need someone to decipher it or else it doesn't have much value. I do not know how Ravel Law plans to use all of this data, but I do know that they have a monopoly on it for 8 years so I hope they use it well.