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The Free Legal Web - who for?

The current Big Idea in the legal / library blog world is the Free Legal Web (FLW). Originally mooted by Nick Holmes, the idea is to pull all of the content currently floating about the ether (legal professionals blog posts, Government information etc) into one portal. That in itself is a big enough task, but what doesn't seem to be clear yet is...who is this Free Legal Web for?

The people involved so far seem to be legal professionals and IT specialists. The legal professionals will be working out some way of getting the useful materials together, and persuading other legal professionals that giving up their valuable time and work (such as blog postings) for this enterprise will be a worthwhile investment, and will reap them rewards in the end. The IT professionals job will be to write the scripts and programmes that will get everything together in the one place, and working well with all the other bits and pieces.

That's all lovely (although it's hard to tell what's actually being done, as the discussions are going on behind an invite-only Google Group, which to me, kind of defeats the purpose of harnessing the collective intelligence of the legal and information professionals), but when this all singing, all dancing portal is up and running, who's going to be using it? I would have thought this was a core question, to be settled right at the start, yet it doesn't seem to have been discussed at any point.

If you're designing a portal to work alongside the subscription legal databases like Westlaw and LexisNexis, then I assume it's being aimed at people already working in the law, and therefore able to understand and interpret the information being presented to them there. The content will be academic / in depth, and of relevance to other members of the legal profession. Certain assumptions can be made about the level of knowledge and understanding of the user, and their grasp of the content. It also means it's unlikely to be being used by members of the general public. Since legal professionals are likely to be persuaded into contributing to the FLW by the prospect of it eventually increasing their business through building of a reputation, this is not a good start.

If it's designed for the general public, to allow them access to the elusive laws they're meant to keep within, then good interpretation of the law is needed, not just access. People working in the law can forget just how difficult it is to find out what legislation means for people without access to subscription databases, information professionals to check for currency and further discussions of legal points...and even the language of legislation, while precise and succinct, can be incredibly confusing for someone with no experience of reading it, confronted with it for the first time. Content for this FLW would need a different focus - explaining the law and its impact on the general public, with references to the original case law rather than references to law reports inaccessible to the general public. Guides equivalent to first year law students introductions to the various aspects of the law would be needed. Clear signalling of whether legislation applies to all of the UK, or only the devolved areas would be essential. In other words, it would be a very different beast then the FLW designed for legal professionals.

So...is it a Professional Free Legal Web, or a Public Free Legal Web?

Comments

geeklawyer said…
I'm far from convinced it needs to be one or the other. A well designed system could accept valuable contributions from both and reach different audiences simultaneously. Granted that often doesn't work too well but it can.

I think the FLB has significant practical difficulties but an audience doesn't seem to be the main one.
Scott said…
A good post, and a valid point re: the invite-only Google Group (although I think the idea of this was more to pull together the ideas from the barcamp, before letting it out into the open, when there would be some concrete ideas to debate / comment on). The question of who it was for was certainly discussed, and as a wise previous commentor said their was certainly a desire to target both audiences. If going to attempt something difficult, why not really go for bust!
Nick Holmes said…
Jennie - Thanks for the contribution to the discussion.

It is remiss of me not to have posted more over the past week on the Free Legal Web blog. This is simply due to being pulled in several directions. Will remedy that asap.

The Google Group was set up to give those interested in actively contributing a better discussion platform than a blog. It is invite only simply to deter spam artists and time wasters. Anyone genuinely interested in participating can simply request an invite and will be added to the group.

As Geeklawyer says, the audience does not have to be lawyer OR general public; it can - through design - satisfy both. It has to work for lawyers else it will not get off the starting blocks, but it should be relevant and useful to the layman from Day 1. Interestingly, OPSI research reveals that those amongst the "laity" who would most immediately find such a service of benefit are public sector employees; they're already relying heavily on free law but are completely at sea; so there's a third category if you like.

Whatever ... there's no doubt we can do hugely better than the mess we have at the moment.
James Mullan said…
Jennie - bit late on this one but thanks for posting about it. Unfortunately I missed the Barcamp but have now read the report and it looks like there was a lot of discussion. As Nick says if you want to be involved with the project then you can request and invite, the more the merrier is what I say.

I also believe it has to be available to all and aimed at all although if your searching for legal content, you're usually doing so for a specific reason. If I didn't work in a law firm I doubt I start trawling the web for legal content, unless I'd been a bit naughty ;-)

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