Though it may seem surprising, most legal rulings, despite being public domain, are not available for free to the general public. Harvard owns the most comprehensive collection of U.S. case files, a collection second only to that of the Library of Congress. The Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow believes that “law should be free and open to all,” though. In order to make that belief a reality, Harvard has partnered with legaltech startup Ravel Law to digitize its legal library. It will take a team of seven people to carefully take apart more than 40,000 physical books of case files and scan them. After all of the case files have been digitized, Ravel Law will make the database of legal research searchable and available online for free. Additionally, the creators of Ravel Tech hope to add the ability to visually represent connections between cases in order to better visualize patterns over time.

Though anyone will be able to access these digitized case files for free, this “Free the Law” project will also help small firms that are not able to afford access to large legal research databases like LexisNexis and WestLaw. Additionally, the creators of Ravel Tech hope that other innovators and nonprofits will be interested in developing their own search and analysis tools for the case files. These tools, search functions, and visual maps that Ravel Law hopes to implement will be especially important. Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard law professor and director of the law library, explains that, “It’s one thing just to access it in a book. It’s another to be able to build relationships among cases because nobody reads the law from cover to cover starting with the first book.”

Article via BuzzfeedNovember 9, 2015

Photo: This Book via Bob AuBuchon [Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs]

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 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]