Law for All: Free Law Project’s Radical Approach to Legal Transparency

Jennie Rose Halperin
Free Law Project Logo CC BY

What does open access look like for the law? Through free access to primary legal sources, the Free Law Project provides an important service to advocates, journalists, researchers, and the public. Joining with an international movement for Free Access to Law, the US-based organization helps people know their rights in an increasingly uncertain and rapidly changing legal era.

The Free Law Project is an umbrella organization for a variety of projects, including Court Listener for millions of pieces of legal data, the RECAP project (begun by Aaron Swartz in 2009) to freely open the PACER archive of legal data, a complete repository of Supreme Court Data, a repository of judicial opinions and seals, and a Free Law Reporters Database. The project’s call for greater transparency in the law has been covered in a variety of news outlets, and their work continues to grow in scope and importance.

The Free Law Project is accepting volunteers, legal and otherwise, for help with code, transcription, and more at their website. Project founder Mike Lissner graciously answered these questions via email.

Why is it important for citizens to gain access to free legal documents? How does your work run parallel with the open access movement in science and academia?

We see our work and the open access movement as two sides of the same coin. Just as people need access to journal articles to do good scientific research, they need access to legal information to do good legal research. It’s not enough to have access to American laws in the same way that it’s not enough to have access to the laws of physics. Knowing what the laws say is one thing, but properly understanding them in practice is something else entirely. That’s a gap we are working to fill.

With every passing year, we are seeing more and more people defending themselves in court, without hiring a lawyer. Last year, in federal courts alone, 52% of filings were made by people defending themselves, a whopping 18% increase from 2015.

To get a fair shake, these people need good tools and they need to be well informed. We believe the way to accomplish that is by providing high-quality legal data to organizations, researchers, journalists, and the public.

How has the internet changed free access to law? How has it made it more or less possible to gain access to free legal documents? How is your work technically mediated, and how do you create tools to empower legal recourse?

We collect hundreds of new legal documents from court websites every day and make them searchable on CourtListener.com. Within minutes of a new case being published, we can send you an email about it so that you know that it’s something you may want to read. Prior to the Internet, this kind of access was impossible.

But there are still major difficulties that we encounter while gathering these documents. For example, most opinions published by the courts don’t have unique identifiers, so there’s no easy way to cite them until they are blessed by a third party publisher. And of course, very few courts have websites with high-quality machine-readable data, so we spend a lot of effort making sure our crawlers are working properly.

One of our biggest projects, RECAP, collects data from a government-run website called PACER, where legal documents cost roughly ten cents per page. PACER is the biggest paywall in the world, holding more than a billion copyright-free documents, and we’re working on liberating as many of them as we can so that the public can easily and freely access them.

You run a variety of projects, technical and nontechnical, to help citizens gain greater access to legal documents. How does your work contribute to a more just and open society?

We approach this from two different angles. First, we try to make the legal industry more competitive by offering high-quality legal data and APIs. This lowers the barrier to entry that startups and researchers face, making it easier for them to focus on their innovations or research instead of on how to get expensive legal data.

Second, part of our mission is to create simple high-quality tools for people to use to research the law. This helps level the playing field by giving both sides of any legal dispute good tools. Some legal tools are incredibly sophisticated, but even the simplest tools are often quite expensive (it’s hard to know how expensive because prices are usually secret).

We see one of our roles as pushing the bar of what can be free. If Free Law Project, a tiny non-profit, can offer a tool for free, surely your organization can too.

How can non-lawyers get involved with your projects? How do you see your work as being more broadly related to legal advocacy? What kinds of contributions do you seek from the public?

This is a great question. We’re always seeking help from just about any- and everybody. All of our work is open source, and we’re always looking for people to help build new features or squash bugs. We have data entry work that we need volunteer corps to help fix, and we even have a collection of photos of judges that needs to be fleshed out. Essentially, if you have time and skills to volunteer, we can probably use your help.

You work mostly in the United States, but the Free Access to Law Movement is a global movement. How does your project advocate globally as well as in the US? What kinds of organizations are doing similar work around the world?

The Free Access to Law Movement is incredibly important and has gained a toehold in dozens of countries. You can see a list of all the members on their website, www.falm.info. A great way to get involved in the Free Access to Law Movement is to start at that site, find an organization in your country, and send them an email. There’s also the Law via the Internet conference every year that attracts free law advocates from around the world. For our part, working on the American legal system has proven to be more than enough!