Using Legal Databases
What is a Legal Database?
A legal database is a large computer based repository of legal materials – judgments from various courts and tribunals and legislatures. Usually a database will cover one particular jurisdiction or court, but there are several commercial or free-to-user legal databases which offer a comprehensive coverage of a number of jurisdictions or courts.
Law textbooks usually deal with the most important judgments which are held in a legal database, but students need access to databases for several reasons:
- Even if you use a relatively up to date textbook, there may have been new cases which radically change the state of the law. A computer database is usually very up to date.
- You will need to read the whole of a judgment if you are doing any research into the development of law – a textbook usually only gives a very short synopsis of a case. With the whole text of a judgment available to you, you can better understand the points being raised.
- You will get a better feeling for law if you read what judges say (the judgments are, as Bentham suggested, the dictionary which gives meaning to legislation) rather than textbooks. This will make you a better lawyer.
What is available?
There are several commercial databases – Lexis and Westlaw being the two major ones – but there are also free to user databases which, if not as comprehensive in terms of older judgments, will contain all the most recent judgments which you might wish.
The database which we will deal with here is BAILII (British and Irish Legal Information Institute). This has the large advantage of not having a login system, so you can be linked directly to a case or even to a paragraph within a case, and also – and importantly – all the materials in BAILII are edited into a standard format which makes the system easy to search and use.
BAILII began as a system in around 2000, so most of the judgments are from that period, though some important pre-2000 judgments are available. This means that even if you prefer BAILII for its ease of use (as many lawyers do) you will still sometimes need to carry out research on other systems.
When you do not have case names and citations for relevant judgments, then one of the problems using any legal database is finding the particular case or cases which are relevant to you. ‘Relevance’ is the holy grail of searching – presenting only those cases which are relevant, and not presenting those which are not. This is very difficult for a system to do, so the user has to be responsible for ensuring that various search strategies are used.
Remember that when you search a database, you are searching through a large index of the words contained in the judgments (the index is usually much larger than the actual database itself). The best search strategy is one where you can clearly define what words might be used in the judgments relevant to your legal issue. Often you will not get relevant search results unless your search requires that the words be near each other in the judgment, rather than anywhere in the judgment. Also, remember that many words – ‘a’, ‘the’, ‘court’, etc. – are considered too common to be indexed, so any search engine will simply ignore these words if they appear in your search.