I've long contended that the law should be available online for free. Seems fitting and proper, since 'ignorance of the law is no excuse' and all. If you can't claim you didn't know what the law is, then shouldn't the government at least make the law available online for free?
In Louisiana, where I live, the statutory law is available online for free. Our state government has wisely taken that important first step (the site is not exactly a model of usability, however). But what about caselaw, which is to say: written decisions handed down by courts? Often it's not enough to read a statute to know what the law is. You might have to read some cases to see how the statute was interpreted by the courts. Shouldn't that kind of law also be available online for free?
As a member of the Louisiana bar association I get access to something called Fastcase, which is an online legal research service. It's free to me as a Louisiana lawyer, but it's not free to anyone else. But today, Google has taken an important first step in making legal caselaw available online. For free. Google Scholar, which has heretofore been focused on scholarly literature, now provides access to state cases going back to 1950, and federal cases going back to 1924. So that's at least 50 years of state and federal cases that have been reported. And you can search these databases by using text-based queries just as you would in Google.
I realize that lawyers might need to access cases that are more than 50 years old (or 80 if its federal law), so maybe this is not the perfect solution for lawyers. But it's an interesting start. I can envision Google adding to the database as it gets more use, which it should. Here's why.
First, even if you have Westlaw or Lexis (or Fastcase), there are some great advantages to Google Scholar, such as dispensing with the need to login. If you're just looking for a recent case then clearly this is the way to go. And if you want to share a link to a case that's easy to do, again because there is no login barrier. (For example, if I want to create a link to this case I now can: Atlanta Cas. Co. v. Payne, 603 So.2d 343 (Miss. 1992)). You click the link and see the case right away. How cool is that?!
You can search by state, or pick the states that you want to search in (there is no way that I could find to restrict federal case searches to just one circuit, unfortunately). Finally, Google Scholar has a nice way of organizing the cases you search for, displaying a tab called How Cited that lists other cases that have cited the key case and brief description of the citing language. Very nice!
Granted, it's not perfect (did I mention that yet?). But the point is not that Google has failed to achieve the lawyer's dream of a perfect legal research tool. Rather it's that: Google has taken the initiative of making caselaw available for free. Why can't the government do this? (Aapparently no one there knows about HTML and the Internet). But I'm grateful that Google has taken this step, which I hope leads to other developments that will make all caselaw available online.
Update: I congratulate my friend Rick Klau on being part of this amazing project (using his "20% time" at Google to do it).