The information on this website may not be up to date: The government shutdown and free access to legal information

“Since the birth of this country, legal materials have been in the hands of the few, denying legal justice to the many….We are working to change this situation.”

Non-Profit “Free Law Project” Formed to Create an Open Legal Ecosystem, Sept. 24, 2013, http://freelawproject.org.

One week ago, the federal government shut down because Democrats and Republicans cannot agree on a spending bill. One result is that many federal websites – the most official and widely available websites for free legal information – are either shuttered or in stasis, not being updated or maintained until business resumes. Although it is hardly news that electronically-stored information is vulnerable to all sorts of hazards, the shutdown of the government has prompted me to think about the vulnerability of free access to legal information.

The federal government websites themselves are just one strand in the web of information, of course. But other websites that freely provide access to laws and legal information often rely on federal websites for some or most of their data. The CourtListener project is a good example; it provides one of the few free citator services – and it pulls opinions from federal court websites. Search engines such as Google Scholar’s opinion search also scrape data from federal websites. As you can imagine, the shuttering of government websites is likely to have a cascading effect.

Other sites that provide free access to legal information may not rely on government websites. Rather than pulling directly from federal websites, the Legal Information Institute (“LII”) at Cornell has created its own databases of sources such as the Code of Federal Regulations. Presumably, it would be less vulnerable to the effects of a government shutdown, but other hazards could threaten. The LII relies on donations, support from the Cornell Law School, and advertising. Just over a week ago, the developers of the CourtListener platform announced the establishment of the Free Law Project, an umbrella non-profit that would encompass Court Listener and other projects to make legal information freely available – and they are seeking grants and donations to make this possible. What if these sources of funding fail? It’s a tight economy, especially in legal education and the legal profession.  Are we comfortable with access to legal information being dependent on generosity and a strong economy?

Cornell’s LII has been a wellspring for the Free Access to Law Movement (“FALM”), and other LIIs have been formed around the globe. Some of these have succeeded thus far; others have failed. It is not just funding that causes free-access-to-law sites to fail. Any such site is also vulnerable to organizational, personnel, time, and infrastructure limitations.  See Isabelle Moncion and Mariya Badeva-Bright, Reaching Sustainability of Free Access to Law Initiatives, Aug. 15, 2011, VoxPopuLII, blog.law.cornell.edu/voxpop/tag/sustainability-of-free-access-to-law-projects.

The vulnerability of electronic access to free legal information is worrisome enough, but in the past week I have had three separate conversations about reductions in our print collections. In my library, we no longer have either Shepard’s or the Decennial Digests. We have cancelled print treatises if they are available online. And soon, it is possible that other digests and the regional reporters will be on the chopping block soon along with other rarely-if-ever-used treatises. From what I hear, many other libraries – academic, court, and public – are taking similar measures.

If we’re not keeping print and online access to free information is vulnerable to political showdowns and the vagaries of fund-raising, the public’s access to legal information is in jeopardy. It may not seem dire. After all, the ILL at Cornell has been running successfully since 1992 and the reporters and codes still line our shelves. But without information, there can be no justice. Universal access to laws should be on every librarian’s priority list.

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