"Law" as the first open data set

May 27, 2014


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By Colin Lachance (Guest blogger)

Before there was “Open Data,” there was open access to the law under an instrument similar in many ways to today’s Open Government licences.

In 1997, by way of Statutory Instrument 97-5, Reproduction of Federal Law (the Order) was issued and from that point, anyone had the right “without charge or request for permission, [to] reproduce enactments and consolidations of enactments of the Government of Canada, and decisions and reasons for decisions of federally constituted courts and administrative tribunals.”

The stated motivation for the Order affirms the “fundamental importance to a democratic society that its law be widely known and that its citizens have unimpeded access to that law.” Echoes of this sentiment can be found in today’s Open Government licences for all manner of data sets.

For the Canadian Legal Information Institute (CanLII), this licence helped clear the way for the creation and longstanding success of what has become Canada’s largest and most used public case law and legislative collection. Every day, tens of thousands of visitors to CanLII’s website search and learn Canadian law through exploring the nearly 1.3 million current and historical court judgments and statutes on the site.

CanLII exists because its funders, Canada’s provincial and territorial law societies, believe that law should be open and freely accessible to everyone. It covers all Canadian provincial, superior and appellate courts, as well as all provincial, territorial and federal statutes and regulations.

In 2013, CanLII received nearly nine million visits and supported the equivalent of over 220 years of free, online research into Canadian law.

The benefits of free access to the law are immense. Beginning with providing the basis for ensuring an informed citizenry, free access goes further by radically lowering the costs of access to justice for the public, the legal profession, and even the very courts and governments that make the underlying legal information available for republication. In fact, the single largest user of CanLII’s free services is the Canadian Department of Justice!

From a licensing perspective, if legal texts were among the first Open Data sets, then the next logical step would be to transform them into a true and, ideally, linked data format.

The benefits and opportunities associated with Canada’s open access approach to federal legal information were extended when, in 2011, statutory content was made available in XML format. The future possibilities will be greater still as the federal examples are gradually followed by the provinces, and as all generators of primary legal information take the next great leap and adopt standards for linked legal data.

- Colin Lachance, President and CEO, Canadian Legal Information Institute

The opinions expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of the Government of Canada.

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