June 30, 2003

I have been asked by the editors to bring the story of BAILII up to date. BAILII is in every sense the child of SCL. From the time I first joined its executive committee 17 years ago we were seeing what could be done to harness technology to make the law more accessible to the citizen (and not only to those who could afford expensive text books and law reports). During my nine years as the Society’s President we were always on the lookout to see what could be done to take these aims forward. My successor, Lord Saville, has also been one of BAILII’s trustees from the start.

It is now three and a half years since I chaired that crowded meeting at Chatham House at which Professor Graham Greenleaf of AustLII was the main speaker. There were people there from every part of these islands: from government and the judiciary, from both sides of the legal profession, from the academic world and the world of legal publishing, from the worlds of law librarians, consumer associations and advice centres.

The mood of the meeting was unanimous. We all wanted to see in our islands the creation of an electronic legal information service like the one Professor Greenleaf had showed us, giving access to our primary sources of law, both statute and case-law, free at the point of delivery. A hundred thousand pounds was promised before Christmas to enable work to start quickly, without things getting tangled up in red tape and committees.

Out of these beginnings BAILII (at first launched on a pilot site in Sydney) quickly became the single largest free access law site for the United Kingdom and Ireland. It obtained 14,000 hits on its first day. Site watchers in early April 2000 saw the volume of English case law multiply more than a hundredfold overnight. BAILII became a registered charitable trust in December 2000. In July 2001 we appointed our executive director, Joe Ury, and found our London home at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies in Russell Square. We were then able to create a small Web site for “new cases” in London, but the database still remained in Sydney, by courtesy of AustLII, until last September. Since then Roger Burton-West, who joined the BAILII team in July, has controlled the database from the London end.

At present BAILII loads onto its site all the case law and statute law it can get its hands on free of charge. On the site are the official shorthandwriters’ archive of English High Court and Court of Appeal transcripts between May 1996 and August 1999, and handed down (reserved) judgments since then. Privy Council and House of Lords judgments go back to 1996. For Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland the case law usually goes back to 1998 or 1999. In Ireland Supreme Court decisions go back to 1999, High Court decisions to 1996, Irish Information Commissioner’s decisions to 1998, and Irish Competition Authority decisions to 1991.

BAILII’s database of statute law follows much the same pattern, although UK statutes go back to 1988, Irish statutory material to 1922, and Northern Ireland statutes to 1495. A clutch of recent Irish Law Reform Commission papers is now there. A large volume of English Law Commission material will follow soon.

Over the last two months site-watchers will have seen that all the substantive judgments of the Civil Division of the Court of Appeal (and not merely the reserved ones) are being posted on the site as soon as they are available in approved form. I hope that during this year the volume of current High Court and Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) cases on the site may grow. Six gigabytes of data are now available. Four megabytes are being downloaded from the site every day.

The index of judgments on the Court Service’s Commercial Court Web site now has a link to the BAILII site where the transcripts of many of these judgments are available. If a judgment is appealed, the index will show the appeal judgment as well. Increasingly the transcript of both judgments will be on BAILII, and the House of Lords judgments as well if a commercial case gets that far. There is no reason why we should not provide a similar service to practitioners in other fields.

What of the future? The first £100,000 kept the dream alive until Joe Ury arrived. BAILII’s trustees were then able to start spending money from the London end. During 2002 BAILII raised a further £100,000. With a steady state annual income of £100,000 (which has to be worked for) the trustees could maintain the present level of provision and improve its technical quality.

This is not the limit of our dreams, if we had more money. We have always believed in the need to create a level playing field for access to all, free of charge, to our case law and statutes and other publicly available legal materials. It would make a huge difference, for instance, to those who provide advice on housing or social security benefits, asylum, tax or employment law, if they could be sure they could find the latest judgments from the Administrative Court (as I hope may soon happen) or from the leading appeal tribunals on the BAILII site. As soon as a judgment or determination reaches the site, automatic hypertext links will link it with cited judgments elsewhere on the database (if an official neutral citation is used). Then, if a VAT Appeal Tribunal refers to recent Court of Appeal case law, for instance, it should be possible to go straight to the cited judgment.

At the Commonwealth Law Conference in Melbourne, Graham Greenleaf, with whom I shared a platform, told us how AustLII is now developing WorldLII. The implementation of this ambitious plan would provide a worldwide database. The scope for automatic hypertext linking (and simple access to worldwide case law from a single site) would then extend to all the judgments on the WorldLII database.

For all sorts of reasons it is essential that we retain our independence of Government, although if Government saw us to be financially viable it would be far easier to persuade it to enter into some form of partnership arrangements with it. The number of those who are willing to donate £500 or £1,000 to us each year is steadily growing. A visit to the site at will provide all the details readers of this article will need if they, too, are willing to help us to keep this very unusual show on the road.

Sir Henry Brooke is Chairman of the Trustees of Bailii. He was President of SCL between 1992 and 2001, and is an appeal court judge.