Time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.
In many countries, the law is defined by the statutes passed by parliament. In the United States, however, we follow the British-based Common Law system, where the decisions of judges who interpret the statutes — caselaw, it's called — can be just as important, if not more so.
For centuries, the cases were published in lawbooks that impressively decorate lawyers' offices. Today, though, are more likely to use privately-published online databases to find relevant cases. Those services are expensive, though, which means most people can't access them. Columbia University law professor Tim Wu aims to change that.
WU: "AltLaw.org is a different way of finding caselaw — the nation's cases written by its judges. Now that may not sound like a big deal, but the truth is right now it's very hard to find the nation's caselaw."
AltLaw.org wants to bring that caselaw into an online, fully-searchable, free database.
WU: "Our target audience is the general public, lawyers who want to save money, academics and, you know, we don't really know what's going to happen with it. It's still very new and preliminary. It's not a full replacement yet, but it's a start."
AltLaw.org is still in its infancy, and the cases are limited to those published by the Supreme Court and other federal appeals courts for the past 10 years or so — no lower courts, and no state courts, either, at least for now. To add those will be time consuming and expensive, but Prof. Tim Wu says he and his colleagues are inspired by the success of the free online encyclopedia Wikipedia.
WU: "No one thought there would be a non-commercial free encyclopedia that would be as good as or better than some of the other encyclopedias out there. And so our idea is, once you start something, who knows where it will go. And it's about time that the legal profession, which is always a traditional profession, sees some of the benefit of the information revolution."
Searchable court decisions for the rest of us at AltLaw.dot org, or get the link from our site, voanews.com.