Nearly 50,000 court judgments have been set up to be posted online in the first phase of the government’s plan to create a cutting-edge free repository of legal information, the Gazette can reveal. The service, hosted by the National Archives, will go live next April when the Ministry of Justice’s contract with the British and Irish Legal Information Institute (BAILII) expires.
‘We’ll meet the deadline, there’s no doubt,’ John Sheridan, digital director at the National Archives, said last week. The plan, exclusively revealed by the Gazette last year, is to create a comprehensive online archive of ‘judgments as data’, encoded in a form readable by computer. This will be of benefit to developers of artificial-intelligence-based legal support tools as well as researchers and academic lawyers.
By last week, Sheridan said that 47,366 judgments had been marked up this way, in an international standard code known as Legal Document Mark-up Language.
The first batch of judgments to appear on the archive will be the decisions of the senior courts from 2003. These were passed on by BAILII in the form of rich-text and pdf documents. Sheridan dismissed questions about the copyright status as ‘academic’, saying: ‘We can proceed with a high degree of confidence on the basis that they are Crown copyright and archived with the active engagement of the judiciary.’
However he conceded that the project’s next phase, creating an archive of important historical judgments, may be more tricky. The National Archives has invited publishers to donate judgments, but Sheridan said that acquiring versions ‘for the nation’ would incur costs. ‘We will obviously reimburse them, but we will run a process that demonstrates value for public money.
‘These are important public records,’ he said. ‘We’re looking to acquire published versions of these judgments for the nation.’
Questions remain about the addition of judgments from junior courts and tribunals, currently a gap in BAILII’s service. ‘Decisions about what should be permanently kept are not for us. That’s partly for the judiciary and partly for the MoJ,’ Sheridan said. But he insisted that the National Archives was the natural home. ‘We’re the world leader in digital preservation.’
How big will the eventual archive be? ‘I’ve no idea,’ he said. ‘But it’s the right thing to be doing. We’re really pleased to be working with the MoJ: April will be by no means the end, rather the beginning.’