Legal Websites and some thoughts

by scotslawstudent

I believe there are two ends on the online legal resource continuum – sites can be inward looking or outward looking or some combination of the two. With inward looking sites being those intended for people studying, practicing or merely reading about law itself. The outward facing sites are for those affected by legal issues as lay people. The difference, is generally, but not always, simply the amount of evaluation and editorialising that goes on with the content and the approximate degree of separation from the original source material – inward looking resources are used by people who, when it comes down to the nitty gritty, have to tell a tutor, examiner or another professional that the dicta in paragraph X of case Y or that section a(b)(c)(i) of statute Z supports their position better than the other guy. Users of the outward facing sites simply want a reasonably straight forward answer to questions like “can I build a fence in my garden?”

Sites are not entirely one or the other, there’s a definite continuum online, but users of one kind may find themselves disappointed by the other. I quite like the soft edges of outward facing resources to gain a general, big picture analysis of what I should expect to find when I have a look at the source materials – I learned the basic provisions of the Unfair Contract Terms Act through consumer rights education while still at high school. It put me a good position when I studied statutory interpretation in my first semester of first year and needed to make some sense of the quite notorious piece of legislation. I find statutory interpretation very difficult – though not nearly as hard as statutory drafting – simply because there’s so many techniques, some modern and some truly ancient, to help you gain meaning from statute. Let’s not even mention Pepper v Hart which is distilled essence of “more hours researching in the library” wrapped up in a cute case name. Effectively knowing what I’m going to find is a massive crutch that will be awkward if it’s not there but certainly helps if you’re already just finding your feet. That means that reading sites that I’m perhaps not going to cite in my bibliography is still very helpful – the whole concept of academics is based on “standing on the shoulders of giants” and there’s nothing wrong with standing on the shoulders of giants who write in simpler language. Being able to back it up in a more scholarly manner, which generally seems to mean by quoting like a man possessed, is the goal but comprehension is a infinite help in writing an essay.

The ultimate inward facing legal websites are obviously Bailii, HUDOC, Lexis Library, Westlaw and the rest of them – sites that exist to give you access to source materials. The commercial databases do a remarkable amount of what database engineers would call “input sanitising” – Westlaw US checks so thoroughly that it often sends source documents back to the courts that wrote them with errata, for example, but all remain initimately connected with the original text and are fairly hard going for someone without a legal background of some description.

Up from this very source level are sites where there is still heavy reliance on source documents but they are accompanied with editorial content – I particularly like for this sort of thing.

The next level up are what is effectively the online textbook. I’m actually unaware of anything that I would class in this category which is still very much material for those studying, and perhaps practicing – I was certainly pointed to my textbooks as the basis of a mooting submission and the advice seems very sound – law. I would certainly use it though, so I’d appreciate a pointer for that if any reader can think of one.

Beyond that is a marked distinction into those intended to “simply” provide an answer – the Wolfram Alpha to Westlaw’s Google, if you like. Writing high quality legal reporting at this level is a very different beast which requires a much more reader friendly approach, sites may not even mention the source material or if they do it’s in very vague terms – like the “Sale of Goods Act” (an act with 64 sections and 4 schedules) providing you with “statutory rights”, rather than talking about Part II ss.10-14 adding “implied terms” to “contracts of sale”. These sites are generally very easy and quick to read, and while they don’t really provide the sort of detail you’d get a particularly meritorious mark for at uni they will hopefully settle your legal issue quite straightforwardly. Sites like this are relatively numerous but are generally fairly specific in the material they cover – taking or as examples. Consumer advice sites are most helpful, frankly, at this level.

Generally the simpler things are the hardest to write. It’s easy to read out a bit of statute, point to it and say “that’s the law” but it’s unexpectedly difficult to point a statute, decide what’s relevant, what it means in context and then decide if it helps. It’s not a flaw with legislation, it’s just a result of living in a complicated world. The harder material is still extremely hard to write but being able to explain concepts to someone without a background in the particular field – even intelligent people with skills in another field – is a bit of gift. For example I certainly know that a lot of medicine goes straight over my head, even though a reasonable amount of computing and an increasing amount of law won’t, and I need it explained to me in quite small words.