Harvard Law Launches Project To Put Every Court Decision Online For Free

from the nicely-done dept

On Thursday, Harvard Law School announced its Free the Law project, teaming up with a company called Ravel to scan all federal court decisions and all state court decisions, and then place them all online for free. This is pretty huge. While some courts now release most decisions as freely available PDFs, many federal courts still have them hidden behind the ridiculous PACER system, and state court decisions are totally hit or miss. And, of course, tons of historical cases are completely buried. While there are some giant companies like Westlaw and LexisNexis that provide lawyers access to decisions, those cost a ton -- and the public is left out. This new project is designed to give much more widespread access to the public. And it sounds like they're really going above and beyond to make it truly accessible, rather than just dumping PDFs online:
The cases will be accessible in a searchable format and, along with the texts, they will be presented with visual maps developed by the company, which graphically show the evolution through cases of a judicial concept and how each key decision is cited in others.
Ravel is a private company, which is paying for the scanning, but Harvard appears to have structured things in a pretty reasonable manner. Harvard "owns" the resulting data (assuming what's ownable), and while there are some initial restrictions that Ravel can put on the corpus of data, that goes away entirely after eight years, and can end earlier if Ravel "does not meet its obligations." Beyond that, Harvard is making everything available to non-profits and researchers anyway. Ravel is apparently looking to make some money by providing advanced tools for sifting through the database, even if the content itself will be freely available.

All in all, this looks like a useful and worthwhile project -- one that the federal and state governments should have already done on their own, but... Now if we can just open up PACER finally....

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward, 30 Oct 2015 @ 6:32pm

    Can they do that?

    Will Westlaw and LexisNexis have to move to Europe in order to file their ISDS suits, or can they do that from here?

    How many other ways are there to charge someone/something with felony interference with a business model are there?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Nigel, 30 Oct 2015 @ 7:02pm

    ughh

    I often cant believe we have to have this conversation in the first place.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Oct 2015 @ 3:36am

    "one that the federal and state governments should have already done on their own, but... "

    Governments almost never do anything on their own unless money is being shoveled at them. This Pacer bypass is great news, but there is still much work to be done. It seems that the vast majority of public records are still not accessible online, a full two decades after the WorldWide Web opened the information superhighway that was supposed to make driving a car obsolete.

    Of course, special interests like private developers will always prefer that the public not discover the plans and schemes they're cooking up with the city and county governments.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DannyB (profile), 31 Oct 2015 @ 6:39am

    But what about Copyright?

    First, if the court decisions are not under copyright, then they should be. Otherwise, what incentive would judges have to make decisions?

    Second, putting these decisions online for free makes it difficult for other bottom feeders to monetize access to those decisions by erecting troll gates.

    If judges don't receive income from the parties that benefit from their decisions, then what incentive will judges have to make more decisions favorable to particular parties if there is nothing in it for them?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Gobbldyguk, 31 Oct 2015 @ 11:26pm

    And I would have gotten away with it ...

    It will be much easier to see patterns of judicial misconduct. Data is power and having more of the data while depriving others keeps the corrupt and powerful unaccoutable and everybody else vulnerable.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      alternatives(), 1 Nov 2015 @ 3:45am

      Re: And I would have gotten away with it ...

      It will be much easier to see patterns of judicial misconduct.

      Having a functioning system to make sure courts are honest is needed. If the lawyers would be on the dime for misconduct they'd have a reason to be less enamoured with Judges jerking ppl around.

      But where is the tutorial sites on how to run a PAC to oppose and publicise the crappy Judges? Where is the push to have ALL court matters recorded like we want to record all cops?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    alternatives(), 1 Nov 2015 @ 2:51am

    Ignorance of the law is no excuse?

    Other than the large volume of the tangled briar patch of what passes for "law" - will anyone write a script to parse exactly how long it would take a human to 'read' all of this law so 'ignorance' of the law would be eliminated.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Nov 2015 @ 8:21am

    Agree with the concept, but why Harvard?

    I'm wondering how easy it will be for alumni to get decisions they disagree with dropped from the database.

    Welcome to the era of negative information space.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Adam40 (profile), 1 Nov 2015 @ 5:38pm

    Won't replace Pacer

    Pacer is a fee based service to access state and federal court dockets. It includes rulings for which opinions may be unwarranted, as well as motion practice. Westlaw and Lexis do not offer the same access to the pleadings and orders of a lawsuit as Pacer. I don't see Pacer going away because of the launch of Ravel because the granularity simply won't be there if you need that. And lawyers need that to do their job.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Swartz, Aaron, 2 Nov 2015 @ 2:16am

    Harvard´s "Aaron Swartz homage project"

    Didn´t we just murder wunderkind Aaron Swartz for exactly this project?

    Is this a homage to him?
    Is this called the "Aaron Swartz project" yet?
    NOW they want to make him a martyr?

    I do not understand this doublethink, the spread is huge.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Aaron Swartz, 2 Nov 2015 @ 2:18am

    no mention to Aaron Swartz. WTF???

    how did Mike Masnick manage to NOT MENTION Aaron Swartz?

    what kind of journalism is this?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    PennInk, 2 Nov 2015 @ 4:57am

    While they're at it

    I'd like to see them create a 21st century system for citations AND outside the copyright claws of West Publishing, namely to get rid of page references. Instead, use something like [year][court][sequence for the year][paragraph number]

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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