Erik Eckholm
October 28, 2015

Harvard’s Law School Library is taking an important step towards improving access to justice and creating a complete, searchable database of American case law that will be offered free on the Internet. While such records usually come at a cost of thousands to millions of dollars annually, depending on the size of the legal organization trying to access them, Harvard’s “Free the Law” project offers those with few resources a guaranteed floor of essential information. The project also will offer some sophisticated techniques for visualizing relations among cases and searching for themes.

Working in partnership with Harvard is Ravel Law, a commercial start-up in California. Under Ravel Law’s agreement with Harvard, the entire underlying database will be shared with nonprofit organizations and scholars that wish to develop specialized applications. Ravel Law and Harvard will withhold the database from other commercial groups for eight years. After that, it will be available to anyone for any purpose.

Legal aid lawyers and public criminal defenders are calling the project a welcome development that may save them money and make the law more accessible. Alex Gulotta, executive director of Bay Area Legal Aid in Oakland, Calif., called the project “brilliant” and put it in a wider context of making “government information” more readily available. “Knowledge is power,” she said. “People will always need lawyers, but having resources available for self-help is important.”

Complete state results will become publicly available this fall for California and New York, and the entire library will be online in 2017.

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Organizations mentioned/involved: Bay Area Legal Aid (BayLegal)