Free Our Data: the blog

A Guardian Technology campaign for free public access to data about the UK and its citizens


A free, searchable law catalogue: hours of fun for all (especially lawyers)

The other day I was thinking to myself that one thing we could really do with is a database of court judgements. Not because I had any pressing need to look up a court judgement, but because logically – given that the courts are government-funded, work for the benefit of citizens, and are never ever going to be privatised – their output is a public property which should be available as a public good.

And lo and behold, someone has got there long before. Today’s Guardian leaders included one praising the work of Bailii, the British and Irish Legal Information Institute, a charity devoted to freeing the law and whose trustees are chaired by Lord Brooke.

The leader notes that

Since 1999, Bailii has been amassing past judgments and negotiating to publish current and future ones. This is not just a wheeze for lawyers to get something for nothing, nor is it only for people fighting their own cases through the courts. It provides a constitutional right, allowing anyone interested to read the decisions taken most days in the courts that influence the public domain. With a handful of people, a budget of just £120,000 a year, and a shrewd grasp of what technology can do, it is finally making a reality of the ancient quest for universal access to common law.

Having tried it very briefly and searched on a few points of interest, it’s clear that Bailii is trying to dom something very like what theyworkforyou.com does for Parliament – make the law courts’ output into something that we can all access. Its utility might not seem huge on face value, but that’s a false argument. Compare that to the utility you’d lose if it wasn’t there. Not sure what that is? Don’t worry – all databases grow in value with time and size.

The only shame, in fact, is that Bailii has to be charitably funded, outside government. It’s the sort of thing that we should be expecting the courts to do themselves. After all, £120,000 a year is about the cost of a few troops in Iraq. And I hear we’re withdrawing those now..

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