BAILII’s Continuing Expansion

July 28, 2008

The British and Irish Legal Information Institute ( is a non-profit making charitable trust which provides on the internet, on a subscription-free basis, a searchable database of full-text primary legal materials.  The BAILII website contains decisions of the Privy Council, House of Lords and the Court of Appeal, important courts such as the Scottish Court of Session and the Irish Supreme Court, and other courts and tribunals, and legislation from four jurisdictions. It also contains reports and consultation papers from the Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law Reform Commission, in addition to Irish Law Reform Commission materials.

BAILII began publishing judgments of the courts of Great Britain and Ireland on its web site in March 2000, having been set up initially by Andrew Mowbray, a member of the team from Sydney universities which had set up AustLII.  The BAILII system is closely based on the AustLII model, and the sophisticated software that drives the BAILII web site is provided by AustLII. 

From the outset the Society for Computers and Law has been one of BAILII’s most important sponsors. 

New Projects

In 2005 BAILII was awarded a grant from the Joint Information Systems Committee and the Higher Education Funding Council for two specific projects:[1]

·         to improve the user interface for the web site

·         to obtain copies of the most important judgments from the past in the core teaching areas of law (such as contract, tort and criminal law) and to add those judgments to BAILII’s database of judgments.

This grant made it possible to carry out the first major overhaul of the web site since BAILII had started, and the OpenLaw project (as it became known) has now been completed. 

Cynthia Fellows (former State Law Librarian of Alaska) carried out extensive research into how BAILII was used by its users, and together with Joe Ury (Executive Director) and Roger Burton-West (System Administrator) made a number of changes to make it easier for users to carry out more precisely expressed searches.  The new interface was developed over a six-month period, during which the legal academic community actively participated in evaluating and testing the revisions, and went live in February 2007. There are two major components of the subsequently adopted re-design: new versions of the home page, search pages, navigation links, and help pages; and refinements to the search engine. The changes have made it possible significantly to reduce the number of unwanted search results. 

The changes to the user interface included the following:

·         a revised home page with links to new content and search screens

·         finding judgments by citation

·         browsing alphabetical lists of case law, legislation, and other materials

·         new individual search pages for Case Law, Legislation and Other Materials

·         a simplified system for restricting the search to particular databases

·         Boolean connectors are more user-friendly and have been improved

·         refinement to truncation and wild card characters

·         date-range searches

·         new Help and FAQ pages.

With the collaboration of the legal academic community, lists were made of the most important judgments in 13 areas of English law, together with two areas of Scots law and two areas of the law of Northern Ireland.[2]  The lists mostly contain around 250 cases.  It had been hoped that the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting would be willing to assist in this process by consenting to the use of judgments from the Law Reports, but although they kindly agreed to provide electronic versions of approximately 50 House of Lords cases, they have so far declined to assist in relation to other cases.  In many cases it has been possible to obtain judgments from alternative sources such as House of Lords and Court of Appeal transcripts, and the publishers of the Estates Gazette Law Reports were kind enough to provide electronic versions of around 50 judgments, but it was not possible to find alternative sources in every instance.

The result of this part of the project was that over 2,500 judgments have been added to BAILII’s database, dating from 1591 to the present, and including important decisions such as Liversidge v Anderson, Rylands v Fletcher, and Hadley v Baxendale. With the cooperation of The Scottish Council of Law Reporting, approximately 600 Scots law judgments are to be added in September 2008.

Feedback to BAILII continues to reflect enthusiasm and appreciation for what has been accomplished with the OpenLaw project.  The new interface and the addition of leading cases to the database have improved accessibility to case law and other sources of UK and Irish legal information, for legal practitioners, the academic community, and the general public.

Keeping up to Date

BAILII continues to add new cases on a daily basis as and when the judgments are made available.  The database now holds most of the substantive judgments of the Civil Division of the Court of Appeal going back to May 1996 and many High Court judgments and judgments of the Court of Appeal’s Criminal Division: there are nearly 40,000 such judgments now on the site.  Privy Council and House of Lords judgments go back mainly to 1996. For Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland the caselaw usually goes back to 1998 or 1999. Irish Supreme Court decisions go back to 1999 and High Court decisions to 1996.   Decisions from over 17 different tribunals and other non-court judicial authorities are also available. 

A table summarising the judgments available is on the website, and shows that there are now just short of 100,000 judgments and decisions.[3]  Hypertext links provide access from a cited case to the full text of the judgment if the cited judgment is also on the BAILII site (provided that the correct citation has been used in the text of the judgment).  The speed at which BAILII can process judgments, together with the fact that many judges are emailing BAILII the transcripts of their judgments within hours of them being handed down, has made BAILII a major source of up-to-date legal information.

Widening the BAILII Net

As regards legislation, UK statutes go back to 1988, Irish statutory material to 1922, and Northern Ireland statutes to 1495.  The formatting of UK statutes has been improved as a result of changes to the versions available at the Office of Public Sector Information web site.  Where possible, each statute has a link to the version on the Statute Law Database, which can then be checked for amendments.  The first piece of Welsh legislation in modern times, the NHS Redress Measure (enacted on 9 July 2008),[4] has recently been added.

The current publications of three of our law reform commissions now appear regularly.  All the reports and consultation papers of the English Law Commission since its inception in 1965 (over 200) are available in PDF, and a number of the most important Law Commission reports are fully searchable.

With a view to expanding the availability of secondary source materials, the BAILII website now offers two legal textbooks and hosts two legal journals: The Barrister’s World: And the Nature of Law (Morison & Leith), Harmonisation of Intellectual Property in Europe (Leith), JILT (The Journal of Information, Law & Technology) and SCRIPT-ed  (a Journal of Law, Technology & Society).  All journal and book text is fully searchable. 

Feedback to the website includes frequent enthusiastic comment about the speed with which new judgments are posted on BAILII, and BAILII’s inclusion of judgments unavailable elsewhere for free on the internet. Users also appreciate that they can link from their own documents and websites to any of the material in BAILII databases.

Future Objectives and Resources

The main objectives over the next years are:

        to maintain the website and the availability of existing databases of materials

        to update the existing databases with new material on a regular basis

        to continue to improve the quality of new data and the functionality of the system

        to obtain additional legal materials, such as books and journals, in order to extend coverage

        to promote BAILII and free public access to primary legal materials in general.

We receive some financial help from Her Majesty’s Courts Service, but we have always been keen to spread our funding sources widely and not be over-dependent on public sources of funds or the generosity of a few donors.  The SCL, the Inns of Court and the Bar Council have always been generous supporters, and the Law Societies of our different jurisdictions have also been helpful, as have the law faculties of a few of our leading universities, and some legal practitioners’ organisations.  This financial support is greatly appreciated.  With only two full-time and one part-time member of staff, BAILII operates with very low overheads, but its day-to-day expenses have to be met, and voluntary donations will continue to be needed if BAILII is to remain able to fulfill its function of making legal materials available to all on a subscription-free basis – donations of any size are always welcomed. 

BAILII forms part of an international “free access to law movement” which has emerged over the last eight years, based around independent, often University-based, Legal Information Institutes (LIIs). At their annual meeting in 2003 these LIIs agreed on a Declaration of Free Access to the Law which includes the proposition that “public legal information from all countries and international institutions is part of the common heritage of humanity”.  The movement’s 2008 Conference[5] will be taking place in Florence on 30-31 October.  An ambitious all-embracing site called WorldLII[6] provides a single point of entry to this treasure-house, which is growing in volume and in value every year and currently contains legal materials relating to 123 countries and territories.  In addition, provides a single point of entry for legal materials relating to 59 Commonwealth and common law countries and territories.


Clive Freedman is a Trustee of SCL and of BAILII; Joe Ury is Executive Director of BAILII.