Non-Profit “Free Law Project” Provides Open Access to U.S. Case Law

Although case law is technically public domain, the legal decisions that interpret and apply statutory law are often scattered across the Internet, locked up in proprietary systems, and only available by paying exorbitant fees. A new non-profit launching this week aims to make these legal materials easily and freely available to all.

School of Information assistant professor Brian Carver and alumnus Michael Lissner (MIMS 2010) founded the Free Law Project to support open access to the law and to develop open-source legal research tools.

The project’s open-source software tools include:

  • A “daily awareness” service providing customized notifications about today’s legal decisions to attorneys, journalists, and others.
  • A cutting-edge “legal citator” developed by School of Information alumnae Karen Rustad and Rowyn McDonald, which automatically detects citations in court opinions, creates links between cases, and tracks the resulting citation network, allowing lawyers and researchers to trace the history of issues and cases via citations between opinions.
  • Juriscraper, a software tool to automatically find, retrieve, and archive legal documents published on hundreds of different court websites.
  • Additional tools for software developers.

Carver and Lissner say that despite a growing movement promoting public access to the text of legal statutes, it can be difficult or impossible for the public to find the court decisions that interpret and apply those laws.

“In many cases, it isn’t enough to know the statute,” explained Carver. “You also need to know how it has been interpreted and applied over many years of case law.” Carver practiced law before joining the School of Information, where he studies intellectual property law and legal informatics.

“Since the birth of this country, legal materials have been in the hands of the few, denying legal justice to the many,” said Lissner, co-founder of the Free Law Project. “With this project, we hope to ease difficulty many have when engaging in a legal dispute, whether they are lawyers or pro se litigants.”

The project builds on work done by CourtListener, which began as a School of Information master’s degree project in 2009 before maturing into a powerful legal research platform that serves thousands of people each week, and has seen its traffic double since July 2013.

CourtListener maintains a growing repository of court decisions, along with advanced tools for searching and analyzing the documents. Today CourtListener archives nearly a million legal opinions from 331 jurisdictions, including real-time updates from all U.S. appellate courts, appellate court archives back to the 1940s or earlier, a growing archive of state appellate court decisions, and complete U.S. Supreme Court records from 1754 to the present.

The Free Law Project will continue CourtListener’s effort to archive court decisions, and will also promote new open-source technologies for legal research.

Unlike most other legal research services, the Free Law Project is committed to the open-source software movement. Not only can users download CourtListener’s entire collection of legal documents, they can also download all the software that runs the site, and can freely edit or re-use that software.

Numerous startups and researchers are already using both the code and the documents as a basis for their own work. The “Free Law Ferret,” for example, uses the code from the Free Law Project’s legal citator in a Firefox plugin that automatically identifies legal citations in web pages and provides links to the full documents.

By making its materials and tools open source, the Free Law Project hopes to support a wide range of software developers, enable innovative legal research technologies, and inspire new types of academic research.

The Free Law Project founders’ goals include helping develop and provide public access to technologies useful for legal research; creating an open ecosystem for legal research and materials; and supporting academic research.

More information is available at freelawproject.org/about.


About the Founders

Brian W. Carver is an assistant professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information, where he researches and teaches about intellectual property law and cyberlaw. In 2009 and 2010 he advised Michael Lissner, then an I School master’s student, on the creation of CourtListener.com, an alert service covering the U.S. federal appellate courts. Since Michael’s graduation, the two have continued the development of CourtListener.

Michael Lissner is the co-founder and lead developer of CourtListener, a project that works to make the law more accessible to all. He graduated from UC Berkeley’s School of Information in 2010. Michael is passionate about bringing greater access to primary legal materials, about how technology can replace old legal models, and about open source, community-driven approaches to legal research.