If you picture the classic tomes lining legal chambers, it seems
that law and publishing go hand in hand. So the match looks perfect
for putting law on the Internet, where the subject's vastness suits
the limitless medium, and electronic searching is a godsend.
But there is a rub. Anyone involved in a legal dispute wants
airtight assurance that his or her information is strictly reliable
and current and includes esoteric, but crucial, details (even how a
judge capitalizes and italicizes words). And the World Wide Web is
not comprehensive enough to bank on, or go to court with. Yet.
But before long, experts predict, a huge data base of federal and
state case law will exist, searchable across jurisdictions. Already,
allowing for the patchwork quality of the Web, a wealth of
information exists that is of great help to generalists and
The generalist can do such things as find sample contracts and
prepare time- and money-saving steps before meeting with lawyers,
themselves can check out a wide swath of case law, ask questions on
mailing lists and read law journals.
Michael Jimenez, reference librarian at the Harvard Law School,
said that while the federal government had done a superb job putting
up laws and regulations on-line, the court system lagged far behind.
This has caused some strange wrinkles.
For one, a variety of law schools are posting the decisions of
appeals courts in their local area; Villanova University School of
Law, for its part, puts up the rulings of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court
of Appeals, based in Philadelphia, starting from 1994. But there is
no uniform methodology at such sites, and decisions can be posted
days to weeks after a ruling.
The White House site directs people looking for Supreme Court
rulings not to the Supreme Court, as you would expect, but to
Law School. It also sends them to Cornell to search the U.S. Code of
all federal laws. But the code on file there dates roughly from
1994, and searching for appeals is somewhat awkward.
There is also a dearth of case law, though some sites are filling
that in. The Findlaw site, for instance, now offers Supreme Court
decisions from 1906 on.
With irregularities like these, the big commercial services that
lawyers wean on from law school, like Lexis-Nexis and Westlaw, and
which have only limited availability on the Web, are considered the
essential final arbiters, and are much easier for law professionals
to use, though they are expensive.
That still leaves a place on the Web for people "who are not well
served, or not served at prices they could afford, at existing
services -- practitioners in rural areas, lawyers in state and local
government, and police officers and sheriffs," said Peter Martin,
director of the Cornell site and former dean of the law school. …