Earlier this month Sara Glassmeyer, Librarian, Lawyer and
Information Provocateur published an important new study outlining the
substantial shortcomings of “free” digital,  legal information in the United States. Glassmeyer has spent the past year as a Fellow at the Harvard Library Innovation Lab and has produced what I believe is the first comprehensive census on the quality of primary legal resources published by states on the web.  “The State Legal Information Census: an analysis of primary state legal information” is a “must
read” for every information professional,whether they are engaged in research,
training, curation, cataloging, procurement or knowledge strategy.
The next time you are asked why you are paying for
commercial research products “since everything a lawyer needs is on the web” —
just whip out the Glassmeyer report.  I
have long suspected the difficulties and unevenness of free digital resources
on the web but I had never seen a systematic analysis of the problem.  Glassmeyer’s report fills the gap and moves
the ball from impression to proof.  State
legal publishing is a vast and uneven landscape offering the public content which is impaired by yawning
gaps in reliability, currency and completeness. Glassmeyer scored each state based on 14 access criteria. No state got a perfect score. Most states have serious deficiencies.
S. Glassmeyer State Census Ratings

Glassmeyer describes an ” information desert” which
exacerbates the access to justice crisis in the United States. More and more
people are seeking to address their legal issues without the assistance of a  lawyer and relying on these public
resources.  While the goal of the report
may have been to highlight the variety of obstacles  which the general public faces in accessing
the materials promulgated by their governments —it also  underscores the significant risks which
lawyers  assume when they rely on free
government websites for primary source materials.
The report focuses on state primary legal resources including codified statutes, administrative, regulations and
case law which are made available by each state. Glassmeyer has outlined a chilling
litany of obstacles, irregularities, oversights and shortcomings which hamper
the usability of state legal information.
The Report’s Recommendations

  •  States should create law portals to provide
    one-stop access to all state legal information.
    States should publish information openly and
    reduce barriers to reuse such as copyright claims in state created content.
  •  Official publications should move from print to
    digital to promote greater access.
  • All copyright claims as well as restrictive use
    terms should be removed from webpages containing state primary source material. Disclaimers should warn about the limitations and usefulness of legal
    information provided.
  • States should consider outsourcing web-based
    content to commercial publishers in order to improve comprehensiveness and
  • States should provide basic disclaimers about
    the use and usefulness of all legal information collections advising of the
    need to validate that the material is current (i.e. hasn’t been repealed
    superseded overruled or withdrawn etc.)

What Does “Access”
  Glassmeyer’s report
deconstructs the notion of “access” and investigates the variety of issues
which create impediments to quote “meaningful access.”  All of these concepts described are familiar
to information professionals –these are the warp and woof of collection
Barriers to access
since the law is full of  “terms of art,” full text searching of a free database
does not necessarily create access for a nonprofessional. No state provides an
index to its case law.
citation systems help practitioner determine the validity of case law and courts
require that pleadings and filings include official citations. There are no
free public citators and the public is required to purchase official
versions of cases in order to comply with court filing rules.·        
most online versions of cases statutes and regulations are not
considered official for purposes of citation. In some states it is not even
possible to determine what is the official version.
No state provides a citator for validating its law.
The format in which the digital content is published has an impact on its
usability. States publish materials in PDF, HTML as well as mixed formats. The
entire repository of caselaw, statutes or regulations may not be in the same
. The majority of states post incomplete collections of codes,
regulations and case law. Most collections start in the mid-1990s. The validity
of these codes and regulations cannot be determined without the assistance of a
professional librarian.
States attempt to control the use of law by posting copyright claims and usage
restrictions. Eight states actually post restrictions on the use of case law –
– indefensible in a common law system where precedents matter.
how the state makes the information available. In most states, the print
version of a case, statute or regulation remains the “official “version.  Most states do not allow bulk access to their
legal information and most prohibit web scraping.
although it is a general rule that states cannot copyright their official
publications, several states do post
copyright notices claiming copyright in their cases, statutes and regulations. 
since many states rely on commercial publishers to publish their
state law, this increases the cost of access to state materials. In addition,
commercial publishers wrap the public domain law with editorial enhancements
making it difficult for the public to understand what they can use and what is
For a resource to have value it must be trustworthy and yet some states place
disclaimers on their websites suggesting that the information cannot
be trusted. The problem of revised court opinions is particularly troublesome.
Courts post slip opinions which they don’t remove or flag when there is a subsequent change.
Most state law is free on the Internet but there are some significant
exceptions where states charge for access.
The law changes constantly but some states fail to update their materials
quickly and fail to post a clear indication of  when the material was last updated.
Legal materials are not searchable on some state websites. Most states only
provide a basic search function. Advanced search features would enhance both precision
and retrieval.
Public-Private  Solution?
many states have adopted the Uniform Electronic Legal Information Act (UEELMA)
this did not result in “barrier free” access to information. The report suggests
that  commercial publishers are simultaneously
 part of the problem and part of the
solution. At this point in the 21st Century the major commercial publishers with editorial teams (Lexis, Westlaw, BloombergBNA and WoltersKluwer) offer the best hope for producing legal resources with editorial quality, cite checking  tools, complete  archives and  current content. This may change as new technologies and legal startups evolve. Ravel and Fastcase are creating lower cost alternative approaches to legal research but neither is in a position to “clean up” the wide variety of state statutes, regulations and caselaw issues outlined in the Glassmeyer report.

 It seems unlikely that states have the will
and the wherewithal to fix the problems outlined in the Glassmayer report any
time soon. Commercial publishers have the technology and expertise but not the
incentive to make all of the primary content  (which they acquire from the states)  available to the public in a user friendly
platform. As primary law gets commoditized and legal publishers shift their
focus from content to process,  will they
consider  public-private partnerships
designed to create reliable open access to primary law across the United

In the meantime – let the lawyers and public
beware: Free legal content is not risk free.