Open Legal Publishing and the Time of COVID-19

Open Legal Publishing and the Time of COVID-19
  • Sarah A. Sutherland

  • October 20, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn attention to how essential many things that we generally take for granted are. I don’t think we’ve ever spoken so much about what we actually need and what we don’t, and it begs the question: what do we all do that is genuinely needed? In March 2020, we started an internal conversation about what CanLII could do to help ensure that Canadians could access the resources they needed, and how we should respond to the crisis. In the end, we came to the conclusion that while there were particular things we could do, generally we were already set up quite well to continue to provide access to the legal information researchers need in the new environment.

Since CanLII’s founding, we have always presented primary law and commentary to researchers over the internet wherever they are, and our workforce was already fully enabled to work from home. Maybe it’s too smug, but we believe that CanLII is well suited to this kind of situation (of course there are other disasters that CanLII is less suited too operate in — solar flares always come to my mind when I think of possibilities, and I know it’s only luck that brought one instead of the other).

That said, this situation has exposed some key holes in access to legal information that bear examination. One of the major problems we have been asked to help with is how to get legal information on particular topics to people who need it where they are.

One subject that was identified as needing better open information sources, even before the pandemic started, is court procedure. Court procedure is difficult to understand, and even lawyers regularly need to look up details as they practice. For members of the public who need it, such as self-represented litigants, it is significantly more difficult.

The commercially produced books used in this practice area are expensive and need constant updating, and most people who aren’t full-time litigators are unlikely to have access to them at all outside of visiting a library. This is compounded at a time when many law libraries are closed, even if we leave aside the issue of how many law libraries across the country are not open to the public when there isn’t an ongoing international emergency.

This showed us that the priorities for CanLII going forward during the pandemic are aligned with projects we started before we could have (reasonably) foreseen that a pandemic was coming. Two projects that display this alignment is our recent CanLII Manual to British Columbia Civil Litigation, published on December 2020, and Civil Procedure and Practice in Ontario, published in September 2021 (We are also developing a manual of criminal procedure and are still looking for volunteers to write some chapters if you are interested).

Going forward we hope to continue to provide resources like these in more jurisdictions.

Looking beyond practice based materials, another group that has been disproportionately affected by this situation is law students (though I wonder if something with such widespread repercussions can be called a singular situation). Students have often not been well served by the existing publishing environment. Many law students cannot afford to buy the textbooks for their courses. Instead they frequently use copies that are available through course reserve in libraries or share copies with classmates. With university campuses closed, they lost access to these resources they need to complete their education.

This encouraged us to explore other opportunities for content expansion and the publication of the first openly accessible course readings on CanLII in February this year, An Introduction to Civil Procedure: Readings, by Noel Semple at the University of Windsor Faculty of Law, and the second in September: Tort Law: Cases and Commentaries by Samuel Beswick at the Peter A. Allard School of Law, University of British Columbia.

These resources mean law students taking these courses will be able to access their course materials without charge, and that the readings can also be used by other professors. This content is also invaluable for people who aren’t in law school, but who nevertheless do research in these subject areas. We hope to see more professors sharing their content this way, so that more students and researchers can benefit from these tools.

We are happy to see that our goals of building open access commentary has proved to be timely and hopefully the resources we are building have been, and will continue to be, helpful into the future. Please let us know in the comments if you have ideas on what’s needed on CanLII. We are always looking for what to do next.

This post was originally published on Slaw here.