19 April 2023 marked the one-year anniversary of the launch of the Find Case Law service, when The National Archives took on responsibility for the external publication of court judgements from the Upper Tribunals, High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court.
This is the second part of a two-blog series reflecting on the first year of the service. Here we examine how the service is being used and by who.
‘User needs: Outcomes for people, their representatives or communities’Richard Pope, 2022
This is what we design services to deliver on. But what outcomes are users of Find Case Law looking for?
Judgments have long been available to lawyers. They are trained to read these formal technical documents, and to use them as evidence in their own cases. Indeed, there are plenty of existing services that already cater very well to their needs. BAILII and the free access to law movement have blazed a trail for twenty years, providing free public access. We find people using our service to find a case they already know about because it’s faster than logging in to one of the restricted access services.
Before we launched, we spoke with people who volunteered to test out the Find Case Law service. They knew The National Archives were creating a repository of judgments and decisions and they were excited for what it could mean for access to justice and transparency of the courts. They were mostly lawyers and judges or data scientists and academics. People we assumed would use the service.
This early research gave us some great early steers in how the service should work, and important nuances to consider; foundation stones for which we’re incredibly grateful. But in April last year we still didn’t really know how non-experts would use the service (or if they would at all).
Since the Alpha version of Find Case Law service became public in April 2022, we’ve seen an increasingly diverse range of users. Here is a sample of three emerging user groups and what we’ve learned so far:
1. What is the law?
This group are using judgments to access the law within them. So far, we’ve learned that their contexts and familiarity with case law are varied but the outcome they’re seeking is the same. They are often professionals making decisions at work. A social worker making sure they have conducted a good quality interview, an enforcement officer working out how much to fine someone, an HR official making sure company policies are in line with the law, a planning inspector signing off on a local plan. Lots of these users have some legal training but they are not legal experts. They’re keeping up with major changes in the law and are regularly looking up caselaw. We’d love to see more examples of how people do this in the context of their work and how we can improve.
2. Something has gone wrong, and they’re looking for back up
It could be they’re researching their employer to see their history with tribunals, or they’ve been accused of something and they’re looking for a case that mirrors their own situation. Or it could just be that they’re trying to familiarise themselves with the language of the courts so that they can convey authority in a situation where they feel intimidated. Often people in this group are distressed. They may be in a vulnerable position, and it is likely they have little or no legal training. Navigating case law for the first time may feel impossible.
Some may be accessing the service via legal advisers. We’re keen to understand more about this relationship, and how designing the service to better meet the needs of legal advisers may also help people in a dispute. If you’re a legal adviser and you’d like to show us how the service works for you, please get in touch.
3. Seeing justice being done
This group want to see for themselves what a judge said in a case that is important to them. They’re often coming in off the back of a news story where a VIP, or social justice issue is being discussed. Rachel Riley v Laura Murray is our most viewed judgment so far. But this isn’t exclusive to national news stories. The same is true for local and personal issues. This group can include the victims themselves as well as communities and campaign groups. Where people have asked us for lower court judgments that they are not directly involved in, it is often on the back of a local news story for example about justice for a local crime.
Of course, these are just three of the outcome’s users are looking for. We’ve seen many other kinds of users from researchers to novelists, developers to family historians. This service is for everyone, and we’re excited to see what new user groups will emerge in our second year. Please tell us if you think we’re missing anyone out.
Everything we learn informs how we design the service. And there’s so much still to learn. We’re looking to work with organisations to help us connect with users of the service on ongoing basis. They can tell us why they need access to case law and we can make sure the service works for them. Please email us at email@example.com
We don’t have everything they are looking for (yet)
In our first year of receiving judgments, we’ve had a fair few users looking for judgments we don’t have. It’s not surprising that people expect us to have everything, we are The National Archives after all, and this sentiment will be familiar to many of our archivists who answer regular queries about ‘gaps’ in other parts of our collection. These could be landmark cases from the 1990s (or 1790s), cases that include a loved one but are heard in courts that don’t routinely report their decisions or cases they’ve heard about recently in the high court and expect us to have. Ultimately the courts decided what should and shouldn’t be archived and made available to the public.
The need for access to court judgments is clear and we understand that when we don’t have a judgment this is frustrating for users. While our collection grows, we know we need to give users a better understanding of the scope of what we have on the service including better error messages if you search for something we know exists but don’t have. Right now, it’s 50/50 whether a user thinks we don’t have something, or they conclude that our search is broken.
Luckily, we have seen such good will, enthusiasm and encouragement from both the courts and the public who want to see improved access to court and tribunal judgments and are excited that there is a new official permanent home for case law. Ultimately, we share an ambition with the Ministry of Justice and the Judiciary to grow the scope of Find Case Law to become a comprehensive and authoritative repository for case law in England and Wales. It will no doubt take years but as an archive, time is something that’s on our side.
Nicki Welch is a digital archivist and Service Owner for Access to Digital Records at The National Archives, who worked closely on the launch and first year of the Find Case Law service. Colleague Rose Rees Jones also contributed to this blog.
Read Nicki’s previous blog in the series on some of the technical problems we’ve tackled since launching Find Case Law.