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While the traditional image of the lawyer buried deep beneath a mountain of law reports and legal texts is ingrained in popular culture, access to legal materials has steadily undergone remarkable changes in recent years. In response to demands for faster, more efficient access to the law, several companies offer online legal research databases that feature instant availability of thousands of Canadian cases to such an extent that when conducting legal research lawyers are now more likely to pull out their laptops than their library cards.

Although these fee-based services will remain important legal resources for the foreseeable future, it is increasingly clear that their stiffest competition will come not from dusty books on library shelves but rather from the impressive collection of free legal materials available on the Internet.

The degree to which the Internet has emerged as a viable alternative for legal research was illustrated by a British Columbia hearing last month in which a registrar reviewed the legal costs associated with a recently decided case. At issue was nearly $1,500 in online legal research expenses claimed by one lawyer. The registrar acknowledged that the legal research costs may be acceptable, but he cautioned against using fee-based services where cheaper alternatives exist. In particular, the registrar noted that the lawyer needed to show the necessity and reasonableness of the expenditure by addressing whether the case was also freely available on a Web site.

Several years ago, the answer to that question was likely to be no. Canadian case law online was at best a hit-or-miss proposition with only sporadic availability of decisions. The Internet was rarely viewed as a reliable resource and so most in the legal community stuck with the fee-based services.

That perspective is changing as the Internet now competes with some of the best law libraries to be found anywhere. Leading the way is the Canadian Legal Information Institute (CANLII), found online at An initiative of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and housed at the University of Montreal, CANLII features free access to an impressive 115,000 decisions from appellate and trial courts, tribunals, and administrative agencies from across Canada. As CANLII begins to add both old and new decisions, its popularity is certain to grow.

Individual Canadian courts are also contributing to this blossoming of online Canadian law. The Supreme Court of Canada, online at, provides access to hundreds of decisions, information on the court's docket as cases wind their way through the system, as well as instant e-mail updates as new decisions are released.

While the availability of legal materials online is a relatively new development in Canada, the United States and Australia have blazed an enviable trail in this area for many years.

Cornell Law School's Legal Information Institute (LII), online at, is notable for its legal information achievements during the Internet's infancy. Established in 1992 with a start-up grant from the U.S. National Center for Automated Information Research, the LII is the home to many Internet "firsts," including the creation of the first law Web site and the first e-mail based legal information delivery service.

Similarly, the Australasian Legal Information Institute, better known as AustLII, is one of the finest law Web sites in the world (online at http://www.austtlii. A joint project of the faculties of law at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) and the University of New South Wales, AustLII was created in 1995 expressly to develop an Australian law research infrastructure by providing free online access to primary and secondary Australian legal materials. The AustLII databases consist of thousands of court decisions from a wide range of Australian courts and tribunals as well as copies of virtually all legislation in force nationwide.

The development of AustLII is all the more remarkable when it is considered that throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, virtually all Australian states and territories used their claim of copyright over caselaw and legislation to grant a single company a monopoly over computerized legal information. In the face of no affordable public access to legal information, the founders of AustLII gradually convinced state governments and courts to reverse this longstanding policy by granting it electronic publication rights.

The importance of a viable Internet-based alternative for legal research extends well beyond access for all segments of the legal community, some of who found the costs of fee-based services prohibitive. The new virtual Canadian law library stands as an important affirmation of the principle of access to the law for all Canadians. While cynics scoff at visions of an Internet where "information wants to be free," in the legal world that vision is fast becoming a reality.

Michael Geist is the Canada

Research Chair in Internet and e-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa and technology counsel with the law firm Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP. He is on-line at and http://www.osler .com (

Additional articles by Michael Geist

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