Crowdsourcing the law is a concept any number of legal sites have tried over the years, as I’ve written about many times. The idea behind it makes perfect sense. There are lots of very smart legal professionals out there in the world — practitioners, academics, librarians and even law students. If they can be encouraged to share their knowledge and insights, we would all benefit from their collective input.
One of the most recent examples of this for U.S. law is Casetext, a site that provides free access to court opinions and then uses crowdsourcing to add descriptions and annotations to the cases. I’ve written about Casetext a number of times here and also in the ABA Journal.
This week, at the suggestion of Jordan Furlong, I’ve been exploring CanLII Connects, a site that does something similar for Canadian law, drawing on the legal community at large — as well as on blogs and publications — to provide commentary on and analysis of Canadian court decisions.
CanLII Connects is a project of CanLII — the Canadian Legal Information Institute. Much like its U.S. counterpart, the Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School, CanLII is an organization devoted to providing free access to law and legal information and to providing the legal community with a free, comprehensive and robust legal research service.
CanLII now houses more than 275 databases of caselaw and legislative materials from the federal government, the provinces and the territories. Its collection includes more than 1.3 million documents with new documents being added at the rate of 2,000 a week. CanLII is staffed by Colin Lachance, its president and CEO as well as a 2014 ABA Journal Legal Rebel, and Sarah Sutherland, its manager of content and partnerships.
Contributors are Vetted
Last April, CanLII launched CanLII Connects as a way to marry the caselaw it houses with commentary from the legal community. To do this, it encourages lawyers, scholars and others who are competent in legal analysis to contribute commentary on cases or to post summaries of cases.
Only registered members are allowed to post and only after they have been approved by CanLII Connects staff. Here’s how they describe it:
CanLII Connects is committed to ensuring high-quality information for its users. For this reason, applications will be reviewed to determine whether you have the necessary competency to contribute summaries and commentary on Canadian case law. However, members are not necessarily required to be practicing lawyers or legal professionals.
Lachance, in an email, tells me that all membership applications are manually verified and participation is authorized only for people presumed capable of commenting on Canadian law. “Once membership is granted, any member has the ability to add content, comment on the content of other members, and upvote content,” he writes.
The site also allows entities to register as a “publisher” and post content. A publisher can be any law firm, organization, group, business or school that is also a member of the legal community. Publishers can post content to CanLII Connects directly and also authorize affiliated individuals (such as members of a firm) to post under the publisher’s name. A publisher can manage all content published under its name and by its affiliated members.
Contributors can post either summaries or commentary. Here is how the site explains the difference between them:
A summary is a shortened version of the full court decision. It typically contains the key facts, reasoning of the case, and the court’s ruling. A summary should not include any commentary or opinion about the case; it’s our preference that contributors keep these documents as neutral as possible. Commentary, on the other hand, might include a summary of the case but will go generally further by offering an analysis or new idea related to the case or the legal topics at issue.
When an item is posted as commentary, other registered users can add their own comments to the commentary and create a discussion.
The site also aims to draw content from blogs and other publications. It does not scrape content directly from other sites, but it encourages authors to republish their content on CanLII Connects. In this way, the author can link his or her content directly to the ruling it discusses and make it discoverable by someone who is researching that ruling.
One example of how this works is from the blog ABlawg.ca, a blog on developments in Alberta law written by faculty members at The University of Calgary. When CanLII Connects launched, the authors of this blog joined as a publisher contributed their back catalog of relevant posts and continue to add their new posts to the site, typically within hours of posting them on their own site.
Lachance’s email to me includes a paragraph that perfectly describes the ideal of how crowdsourcing can work within the legal profession:
We are at the beginning of a virtuous circle of growth: increased integration with our primary law site means greater awareness of the commentary site, including greater awareness of who is contributing; when lawyers and law profs see work from their peers on the platform, they are motivated to join and contribute their own work; expanding content from an expanding roster of respected professionals drives greater usage which make the platform more complete and more attractive to existing and future contributors to keep the flow of content going; continual growth will prompt us to pursue deeper integration of commentary and primary law which, hopefully, keeps the circle moving.
Perhaps another way to put it is that success breeds success. Of the crowdsourcing sites I’ve covered over the years, several have failed. Their failure has stemmed from their inability to ever build a core collection of contributions. As Lachance suggests, once you can begin to build that core, then the core fuels further contributions, almost virally. From what I’ve seen of CanLII Connects, it looks like they’ve built a solid core and are well on their way to becoming a vital site for Canadian legal research.
Lachance would like to see the site develop beyond only case summaries and commentaries. “In building the legitimacy of the platform and process for sharing of short-form content, we build a community of potential contributors of longer-form content,” he says. That means that CanLII could become attractive to authors as a publisher of longer-form texts, manuals and treatises on a par with those you can find on Westlaw or LexisNexis.
That would take CanLII a long way towards its goal of providing the Canadian legal community with a comprehensive and robust research service.