Harvard Law Library is adapting to the Digital Age

The Harvard library is where one may find shelves of books unearthed with valuable resources that include nearly every territorial and tribal judicial decision since colonial times. It provides priceless information for everyone from legal scholars to defense lawyers trying to challenge a criminal conviction. Now, Harvard librarians are taking off the spines of all but rarities and running them through a high-speed scanner. This would allow a complete searchable database of American case law available on the Web. Retrieval of these vital records were once usually paid for. Now they will be completely free.

“Improving access to justice is a priority. We feel an obligation and an opportunity here to open up our resources to the public.” said Martha Minow, dean of Harvard Law school.

Though the primary documents can be found in the public domain, it’s not in a convenient format, if at all. Legal groups spend approximately thousands to millions of dollars a year depending on the size of the office to find cases and trace doctrinal strands. Harvard’s “Free the Law” project can offer a floor of crucial information and offer sophisticated techniques for visualizing relations among cases and searching for themes.

“Complete results will become publicly available this fall for CA and NY, and the entire library will be online in 2017,” said Daniel Lewis, chief executive and co-founder of Ravel Law, a commercial start-up in California that has teamed up with Harvard Law for this project. The cases will be available at www.ravellaw.com. Ravel is paying millions of dollars to support the scanning project. The cases will be accessible in a searchable format and will be presented with visual maps developed by the company. It hopes to make money by offering more advanced analytical tools still being developed, like how judges responded to different motions in the past all for a fee.

Legal aid lawyers and public criminal defenders called the Harvard project a welcome development that may save them money and make the law more accessible to struggling lawyers, students and even inmates who try to mount appeals from barren prison libraries.

Alex Gulotta, executive director of Bay Area Legal Aid in Oakland, CA, called the project “brilliant” and put it in a broader context of making government information more readily available. “Knowledge is power. People will always need lawyers, but having resources available for self-help is important.”

Article via NY Times, October 28, 2015

Photo: Law books 2 via Eric E. Johnson [Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs]

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