BAILII: A Dream Realised, A Dream to Attain

November 1, 2001

Laurence Eastham reports on the meeting of 10 October, when a variety of speakers brought the audience up to date on developments on Freeing the Law via BAILII and a government minister lent his support to the enterprise. A transcript of the full meeting may be accessed via

Most of us think of dreamers as impractical and peripheral. Certainly in the Lancashire of my youth, it was an insult to call a man a dreamer, albeit an insult filled with gentle reproof rather than condemnation. But other cultures have more sophisticated attitudes to dreamers and, of course, without the dreamers the progress of the human race would be pedestrian (probably literally).

On 10 October the BAILII meeting looked hard at the dreamers and found that they had attained a great deal – and that they had a great deal still to achieve.

In his opening remarks, Lord Justice Brooke looked back on the origin of the initiative. He recalled chairing ‘something rather like one of those old-fashioned revivalist religious meetings at Chatham House’. Some of that quasi-religious fervour had stayed and it had been sufficient to propel the dream into reality. He referred to Charles Christian’s Private Fraser impersonation in the Legal Technology Insider, which had described the BAILII project as ‘a well-meaning but ultimately doomed venture, which apparently defies all commercial reality’ but conceded that ‘some credit must be given to the people who are putting a lot of energy into trying to make the project work’. Lord Justice Brooke clearly felt that there was a clear divide between the recognition of difficulties and a counsel of despair: ‘This is a project which is inspired by people who dream dreams, and our dream is that as much as possible of the law of these islands can be available free to the people of these islands, on a free access Web site. That dream can only come true for the people in academia, for the people in the law centres and the Citizens’ Advice Bureaux, and all the other people who are so vital to our community legal services, if there are enough people who are willing to help us bring the dream come true’.

Michael Wills MP

One of the speakers was Michael Wills MP, Minister at the Lord Chancellor’s Department. His endorsement of BAILII was unreserved and he was quick to acknowledge his Department’s support for it: ‘an initiative which, as I understand it, my Department has supported since the incept of it – and it is actually a tremendous success. I was just looking at some of the figures; 220,000 hits a week, 19 databases, five jurisdictions. This is a tremendous achievement in a very short time, and I think it does actually prove the importance of actually dreaming those dreams, because sometimes they do come true, and that is clearly happening here’. Michael Wills emphasised the link between the Government’s overall focus in terms of the information society and the objectives which lay at the foundation of the BAILII enterprise. He pointed out that, essentially, both involved making ‘information widely and freely available, and almost all of the beneficial impact that they have., which goes through almost every area of our lives, comes down in a nutshell to that. There is clearly a compelling case for making the basic raw materials of the law, legislation and case law, much more widely and easily accessible to the public and the legal professions and everyone else with an interest in the law, through the use of these technologies. It must be right.’

While it was later reflected that BAILII’s value would be crucially increased by the addition to its databases of the information to be produced for the Statute Law Database and a commitment to make that freely available might have been expected at this meeting, the ringing endorsement of Michael Wills is one in a series of such endorsements from Government and it is hard to see how such a position is consistent with anything other than the free supply of that information.

Michael Wills concluded with a final appreciative critique of BAILII: ‘I think it repays all the effort and energy that has gone into it; to all those who had the courage to dream, when it must have seemed often a rather daunting prospect, I think that courage has been rewarded’.


Laurence West-Knights QC then gave a full account of the development process. Regular readers of this magazine will already be aware of much of this. It is a tale of persistence, considerable drama and not a little compromise, with a happy ending: ‘BAILII exists; that may sound a rather trite statement, but it is not. It is unique in this respect. It is not just a name for a site. It is not just a description given to the activities of people. my personal vision is that that Institute will develop a reputation through the site and through its other work for being steady and reliable and transparent, and let me make no bones about it, capable of standing on its own feet. We now have a full-time employee, Joe Ury. He brings with him legal and database skills, and is the ideal candidate, in my view, to be a long-term holder of the post of running this project. His current description is the Executive Director. We have in London not just a copy of everything which is on the BAILII databases in Australia, but a live to Internet working mirror version, and that is housed at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies’.

Laurence West-Knights went on to outline the requirements for the future development of BAILII, including the recruitment of additional staff and the acquisition of hardware. Most required additional funding but the improvements in the legislation database and the access to English court judgments required only sensible planning.

Professor Andrew Mowbray’s demonstration of the site’s facilities gave a hint of the site’s potential But any attempted report of that demonstration would necessarily be inferior to a hands-on session. He described the site as ‘fairly quick and dirty’ and indicated that the main initial focus would be on improving the legislation side and then the completion of the transfer to the bases in the UK and Ireland.

Panel Session

The Panel session which followed went a small way towards correcting the tendency to focus on the situation in England and Wales. I recall particularly John Mee’s reference to the experience with the Attorney-General’s Office in Ireland who he described as ‘revolutionary in the sense that they have, in Ireland, put all the statutes into digital form back to 1922. So, while we have excellent coverage on BAILII, it is down to the initiative of that office in actually getting the 1922 to 1998 statutes in that form’. Predictably, because my focus is on England and Wales, my immediate thought was to compare that effort, and the efforts which have been made in Northern Ireland, with the, shall we say less splendid, moves towards a similar situation here.

I was also struck by the contribution of District Judge Monty Trent, who pointed out that chasing all High Court judgments was perhaps less of a priority than some other developments as there was a problem with information overload. Certainly I feel that the focus might first be on improvements in the search techniques and interface – I tend to get too much by way of results on BAILII at present.


The meeting could not hope to match the atmosphere created back in November 1999. Quiet satisfaction and practical determination are less inspiring than fervour. But there was a real glow that was not merely the effect of the wine. Perhaps the enterprise does fly in the face of commercial reality and is ultimately doomed – but it shares those characteristics with the Pyramids and the Sistine Chapel. With the right governance and commitment, BAILII can make a difference and contribute to a wider social good.

Afficionados of the mixed and extreme metaphor might visit the full transcript merely for Lord Justice Brooke’s playful description of himself as a ‘pygmy at the coalface’. While the writer struggled to envisage some of his former collier clients embracing LJ Brooke as one of their own, the vision of the eminent Appeal Court judge wearing his pit helmet and carrying an African spear remains beyond the grasp of his imagination.

BAILII Trustees: Andrew Mowbray, Alan Paterson, LJBrooke, Laurence West-Knights QC, Jules Winterton and John Mee.