Google has entered the market for legal information with a free service that allows users to search a database of US laws and court rulings. The move could endanger long-established legal publishers such as Westlaw and LexisNexis.
The Google Scholar service has been extended so that users can choose to search 'legal opinions and journals' for information that they need.
Though court rulings and laws in the US are not protected by copyright they are usually only available for comprehensive searching in paid-for services to which universities and law firms subscribe.
Google Distinguished Engineer Anurag Acharya said in a blog post that the company hopes that its entry into this search market with a free product will help US citizens to understand and engage with their legal rights.
"As many of us recall from our civics lessons in school, the United States is a common law country," said the blog. "That means when judges issue opinions in legal cases, they often establish precedents that will guide the rulings of other judges in similar cases and jurisdictions. Over time, these legal opinions build, refine and clarify the laws that govern our land.
"For average citizens, however, it can be difficult to find or even read these landmark opinions. We think that's a problem: laws that you don't know about, you can't follow – or make effective arguments to change. Starting today, we're enabling people everywhere to find and read full text legal opinions from U.S. federal and state district, appellate and supreme courts," said Acharya.
Acharya said that the research tool was designe to help people who were not familiar with the structure of legal information to access it in an understandable way.
"We think this addition to Google Scholar will empower the average citizen by helping everyone learn more about the laws that govern us all," he said. "To understand how an opinion has influenced other decisions, you can explore citing and related cases using the Cited by and Related articles links on search result pages. As you read an opinion, you can follow citations to the opinions to which it refers. You can also see how individual cases have been quoted or discussed in other opinions and in articles from law journals."
Acharya acknowledged the work of other people who have worked to make legal information and research available to people on a cheap or free basis. Amongst those named is Joe Uri of BAILII, the British And Irish Legal Information Institute. It publishes UK and Ireland court rulings for free.
Ury told OUT-LAW Radio last year that BAILII was working not just on publishing current judgments but the most important historical ones, too, on which UK law was now based.
"We felt that if any judgments should be freed so that the public can have access to them it should be this core of judgments, which basically make up the judgment side of the common law system," he said. "It seems natural that a member of the public should be able to find out what that reasoning is, it shouldn't be cloaked in secrecy."
Acharya said that ordinary users should not be intimidated by the rulings and opinions Google Scholar is now set up to search. He said that they are more accessible than the average layman might imagine.
"As we worked to build this feature, we were struck by how readable and accessible these opinions are. Court opinions don't just describe a decision but also present the reasons that support the decision. In doing so, they explain the intricacies of law in the context of real-life situations," he said.