Law student problems: Supreme Court president calls on government to pump more money into online legal databases

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By Katie King on

Neuberger feels your pain

Lord Neuberger, the president of the Supreme Court, has this week delved into a topic very close to law students’ hearts: legal databases.

Aspiring lawyers tend to become au fait with the likes of Westlaw and LexisNexis during their studies, and know there’s little more frustrating than not being able to find a case or statute online.

Neuberger feels your pain. Speaking this week at a welcome address for the Australian Bar Association, the barrister turned Supreme Court justice began by stressing the value and importance of legal databases. He said:

It is of course a fundamental requirement of the rule of law that laws are clearly expressed and easily accessible. To put the point simply, people should know, or at least be able to find out, what the law is. Particularly in a common law system that includes case law.

Oxford-educated Neuberger went on to discuss one of the most well-known case search engines of all: BAILII (the British and Irish Legal Information Institute). Though he heaps praise onto the “brilliant” charity-run website, the Supreme Court pres knows its limitations, noting that it’s “sketchy” on cases older than 16 years. Then, he noted: “That is not a criticism of BAILII: it is more a criticism of the UK government’s somewhat parsimonious funding of BAILII, which provides extraordinary value for money.”

Neuberger then turns his attention to another valuable law student resource: *More government criticism klaxon*:

So far as statutes and statutory instruments are concerned, the UK government does well in ensuring that new statutes are available on the website reasonably promptly. However, the updating service to deal with amendments and repeals is little short of lamentable, with amendments and repeals sometimes not being recorded more than six years after the event.

The solution? “It should not cost much for the UK government to ensure that its legislation website is kept up-to-date,” he said, so we think that means more money.

Elsewhere in Neuberger’s address was some welcomed Brexit optimism.

Many lawyers have expressed multiple concerns about the legal services market post-withdrawal. Will Paris steal London’s legal crown? How will legislators cope with the mammoth task of domesticating EU law?

While these uncertainties persist, Neuberger has pulled out some potential consequences of Brexit that seem pretty positive. He said:

[L]eft, once again, to our own common law devices, we will in some respects be able to react more quickly and freely to developments in our fast-changing world… Indeed, like any significant change, Brexit is operating as a spur to encourage all involved in the provision of legal services in London to strive to ensure that those services are even better than they already are.

Unfortunately, the meat of Neuberger’s speech was dedicated to a topic from which far less positivity can be drawn: the dwindling availability of legal aid in civil law.

Cuts to legal aid over the past 20 years are the product of a “wrong turning” taken with the Access to Justice Act 1999, which was introduced on the back of an assertion public funding costs too much.

Neuberger, worryingly, concludes:

We have all been busy hoping or even trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again — but like all the King’s horses and all the King’s men, I am not sure that we can do it.

Read the full speech here:

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