Legal Databases: Comparative Analysis
Legal research was one of the first areas of scholarship to move into the electronic world, with the introduction of dial-up terminals for searching case law in the 1970s. Today, most legal research done in law schools, courts, and the legal profession at large is conducted via computerized databases. Legal professionals depend primarily on services purchased from the two giants in the field, Westlaw and LexisNexis. However, for scholars outside of law schools, the judicial system, or the legal profession, access to primary source materials on the law has traditionally been much more difficult. In addition, the digital products offered by the large legal information companies are not designed for those working on legal history beyond the immediate past, or on the history of law and legislation in countries outside of North America or Europe. Fortunately, this need has been filled by a small number of more historically oriented databases as well as a wide variety of freely available digitized text providers.
The survey below is by no means exhaustive but is intended to guide the legal historian or scholarly legal researcher through the world of online legal resources by type.
Published Case Reports
The base unit of analysis and research for most legal scholars is the published case report: i.e., the description of the facts of a particular case before a judicial body, the verdict or resolution of the case, and often the opinion or opinions of the presiding authorities on the issues at stake. Case reports provide scholars of the legal past rich detail about the circumstances of a dispute as well as the legal reasoning brought to bear on the matter by a judge. This style of printed report is historically most common in jurisdictions influenced by the English common law, but can also be found elsewhere. Millions of such case reports exist, ranging in length from a few sentences to hundreds of pages, and in date from the Middle Ages to the present.
Case reports also have a confusing double identity. They exist on their own as the record of a case (e.g., Smith v. Johnson) as well as part of a larger body of reported cases from a given tribunal or jurisdiction (e.g., the cases heard in a given term by the United States Supreme Court). The fact that these case reports often exist in many forms—their original published state as part of a volume, reprinted in a later series, or extracted and formatted as an individual unit of electronic text—can cause further difficulties for a researcher.
Some providers like LexisNexis and Westlaw specialize in facilitating quick discovery and retrieval of case reports as self-contained units and thus are most useful when trying to track down the text of a particular case or a set of cases revolving around a similar issue, dispute, or law. Other databases like LLMC-Digital and HeinOnline provide easier access to case reports in their original published form and are more useful when looking for a point in time, a particular court, or jurisdiction.
LLMC-Digital is the online platform for the nonprofit Law Library Microform Consortium (LLMC). It provides access to millions of page images of documents related to legal history from the 13th century to the present in jurisdictions all around the world, particularly the legal history of the United States, Haiti, Britain, and the British empire from the 18th century to the late 1900s. LLMC-Digital has particularly strong holdings in case reports; it holds every volume of the United States Supreme Court reports both in their reprinted form and nominate form. Likewise, LLMC-Digital also provides access to the published reports of the U.S. federal appellate courts from their inception as well as those of a number of other federal tribunals.
Beyond federal law, LLMC-Digital contains extensive holdings of reported cases from every U.S. state's Supreme Court, and strong holdings in reports from state appellate courts. Most importantly, LLMC-Digital contains a large number of published reporters from foreign jurisdictions, in particular all corners of the British Empire. This includes: almost all reported cases from Canadian federal and provincial courts back to their inception; the full run of English reported cases prior to 1865; numerous Scots law reporters; extensive runs of law reports from the Indian subcontinent; and reports from Australia, Ireland, and South Africa. In all of these cases, LLMC-Digital’s strength is in historical case reporters; the closer to the present one gets, the weaker the coverage becomes.
Users can search LLMC-Digital’s database for cases by standard citation (e.g., 21 U.S. 453), full-text keyword, or browse through numbered volumes of cases. However, the search interface is slow and without advanced sorting options. Another challenge is that large multi-volume sets are presented without any guide to the contents or chronological coverage of each volume. CRL’s Global Resources Forum features a more detailed review of LLMC-Digital.
HeinOnline, the online platform of legal publisher William S. Hein & Co. Inc., offers a series of collections of digital facsimiles of a wide range of printed primary sources on the history of Anglo-American law, world constitutions, and international law. Like LLMC-Digital, HeinOnline offers coverage of Canadian Supreme Court Reports (1876–2011) and those of the United States Supreme Court (1754–2007). It stands out as having the most easily searchable version of the English Reports Reprints series (cases from 1220 to 1865). Although its U.S. state level coverage of reported cases is much weaker, one of the additional HeinOnline collections offers nearly all published reports from the state of New York from the 17th century to 1900 (and limited coverage into the 20th century). Outside of the U.S., Canada, and Great Britain, Hein also offers the reports of the Supreme Court of Israel (1948–2010). All of these printed reports can be searched by citation, volume, full text, and by case name.
HeinOnline provides an easy-to-use browser interface that enables the user to correlate volumes to year of reports. All texts in HeinOnline are delivered as both page images and plain text. Given the ubiquity online of major appellate reports (like those of the U.S. Supreme Court and the English Reports), HeinOnline's interface and search capabilities make it a logical jumping-off point. CRL’s Global Resources Forum offers a more detailed review of HeinOnline’s core collections.
LexisNexis and Westlaw
LexisNexis (Reed Elsevier) and Westlaw (Thomson Reuters), the primary legal databases for conducting professional legal research, are largely out-of-reach for academics unaffiliated with a law school. However, many universities subscribe to LexisNexis Academic, which includes all of its more powerful cousin’s collections of historical legal material but without its most sophisticated annotation, search, and citation-checking tools. Both Westlaw and LexisNexis/LN-Academic contain all cases reported from U.S. federal courts and U.S. state supreme courts. They also include a wealth of other state and federal case material from the mid-twentieth century to the present. These services should be the first choice for those interested in locating specific reported cases in American courts back to the founding. They also provide by far the best coverage of legal material generated since 1990. However, the lack of page images or the ability to easily browse known printed series of reports by time period and jurisdiction makes them less useful for other kinds of historical work. In addition, finding out just what historical texts these services rely on for their content can be exhausting. Sources in LexisNexis/LN-Academic as well as Westlaw are organized in databases with names like “ARCTS,” “SACLR,” “ALL1,” or “LH-1776” – hardly intuitive indications of their exact temporal or jurisdictional coverage.
These systems deliver content as text instead of page image, and are not primarily designed for searching or browsing through texts as they were originally published (though this is possible). Both databases are indexed to support various types of granulated searching, including by the name of the disputing party.
Open Access Content
In recent years, mass digitization projects have made millions of books available to the public through sites like HathiTrust, Internet Archive, and Google Books. These platforms hold searchable page images of thousands of volumes of primary sources relating to law, available without a subscription. Those researchers looking for specific pre-1923 volumes from the United States and Britain can often find them here. However, searching can be quite difficult; there is no search-by-citation feature, and printed volumes of legal serials appear with many gaps in coverage or fragmented across multiple records. (See, for example, the volumes of the Arkansas Supreme Court Reports available through HathiTrust). Of the three major digitized book providers, only Hathi offers easy browsing of multi-volume titles.
In addition to sites offering digitized facsimiles of books, many other free online services provide the texts of major bodies of law such as reported appellate cases and current state laws. The two most prominent in the United States are Justia and Findlaw, which allow users to search a variety of reported cases by citation, volume, or keyword. Google Scholar also contains interactive searchable U.S. case reports from many federal and state courts. For British and British Commonwealth law, see the free resources at the Commonwealth Legal Information Institute (including all 176 volumes of English reported cases to 1865).
Accounts of trials come in many forms. Besides those contained in formal published reporters, there is a long tradition of popularly printed trial accounts, often written and disseminated by lawyers, members of the public, or journalists. Division between these categories can sometimes be blurred. Print reporters covering the period up to the early 19th century (especially for the United Kingdom) often include verbatim reprints of these popular accounts. These printed accounts are most frequently associated with criminal trials and frequently include transcriptions of testimony given during trial, sensational details of a crime, asides made by actors in the case, and descriptions of courtroom drama. For the historian or other legal scholar, these accounts can provide invaluable context for understanding legal proceedings that might be officially reported in merely a brief or formal fashion. In addition, printed accounts frequently cover trials at local criminal courts or other judicial bodies whose proceedings are rarely found in official reports (as these are more typical of appellate courts).
Numerous online sources exist for printed trial accounts. The most comprehensive is Gale’s The Making of Modern Law: Trials 1600-1926, which contains more than 10,000 of these accounts, primarily from the United States and United Kingdom. In addition, HeinOnline's World Trials Library offers 3,286 titles relating to trials from the 17th to the 20th centuries, with strengths in British and American trials. LLMC-Digital also features a few dozen British and American trial accounts. Beyond subscription databases, there are a few freely accessible aggregators of historical trial material, such as the Old Bailey Online project, which includes page images and searchable full text of trial accounts from London’s most famous criminal court from 1673 to 1914. Researchers might also find individual printed accounts freely available through HathiTrust, Internet Archive, and Google Books.
Statutes and Laws
Beyond the courts, legal scholars have long been interested in the making of laws themselves by legislators and governments. LexisNexis/LN-Academic and Westlaw provide excellent access to current or recent laws promulgated by national or regional governments, but are less useful for scholars searching for historical and session laws. HeinOnline and LLMC-Digital are instead the premier databases in this area. Together they provide the most comprehensive access to U.S. and British laws from their origins to the present. For researchers looking for historical laws passed by the U.S. Congress from 1789, HeinOnline’s U.S. Statutes at Large is perhaps the best place to start. The interface allows for easy searching by year, congressional session, volume, law number, etc., and also includes access to a number of treatises, annotations, and compilations on federal law from the 19th and early 20th centuries. HeinOnline’s Session Laws Library will also be of use to those researching U.S. state laws over time as it contains the complete session laws back to each state's founding. In addition to HeinOnline, Gale Cengage's Making of Modern Law: Primary Sources includes an impressive array of U.S. state codes and statutes as well as an excellent collection of local municipal codes and laws from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Beyond the United States, HeinOnline also includes a complete run of Canadian Federal laws from 1867 to the present and colonial acts back to 1792. Likewise, HeinOnline offers English statutes from 1235 to 1713 as part of its English Reports collection.
While LLMC-Digital includes most of this content as well, its interface is more difficult to use and does not include as many complete sets of U.S. state law. LLMC-Digital does excel at providing access to historical laws for many parts of the British Empire; its collection is especially strong in Canadian provincial legislation and published criminal codes.
Beyond subscription databases, HathiTrust contains large runs of U.S. Session laws, though these are fragmentary beyond 1923. Other freely available state laws are indexed through a number of sites like State Legal Material Online. For foreign countries, the Global Legal Information Network and national government websites provide good coverage for current laws in force but are less helpful for historical legislation.
Understanding the processes and rationales that went into the making of law is frequently just as important to legal scholars as the final written laws themselves. Online primary sources relating to the drafting and passing of recent legislation beginning with the late twentieth century are plentiful in HeinOnline, LLMC-Digital, LexisNexis/LN-Academic, Westlaw, Proquest Congressional, and a variety of U.S. federal government websites. Historical legislative material is more difficult to find. U.S. Congressional documents, journals, and commentaries back to the founding are available through HeinOnline, ProQuest’s Congressional collection, and LexisNexis/LN-Academic, with both LLMC (1873–2008) and the Library of Congress (pre-1875) offering a subset. Gale's Making of Modern Law: Primary Sources has recently made an important contribution in this area by making available many state legislative and consitutional convention proceedings. In addition, HathiTrust and state government websites often hold volume-by-volume scans of legislative proceedings, but their coverage can be spotty and difficult to locate. Further work in this area is ongoing, as LLMC-Digital is currently scanning state legislative journals from the Center for Research Library's holdings, beginning with the western states.
Beyond the U.S. government, LLMC-Digital has digitized a large proportion of Canadian legislative journals. Likewise, for the United Kingdom, ProQuest’s House of Commons Parliamentary Papers database is invaluable, providing access to Parliamentary debates, working papers, and printed reports from the 17th century to 2005.
General Legal Literature
Literature about the law, learned treatises, legal instruction manuals, and similar historical material can help scholars understand the legal milieu at a given place and time. This literature is of course quite immense but fortunately is now widely accessible through a variety of online platforms. Gale’s Making of Modern Law: Treatises on American and British law, 1800-1926 is the most well-known, providing access to nearly 22,000 historic titles. In addition, LLMC-Digital and HeinOnline provide access to their own sets of legal treatises with considerable overlap though sometimes in different editions. Because most of these legal treatises were widely printed and held by academic libraries, a good number have been scanned as part of mass digitization projects and are available freely through Hathi Trust, Internet Archive, and Google Books.
Other Legal Material and Future Directions
While legal materials printed for general distribution such as reporters, statutes, sensational trial narratives, legal treatises, and government reports are reasonably easy to find online, often the most important documents for those interested in the legal past are printed or distributed in very small numbers around a particular case or proceeding. Some of these, like the opinions of attorneys general or other government officers on a particular case, are reprinted later. LLMC-Digital, for example, contains an extensive collection of printed opinions by state and federal attorneys general. Other kinds of legal documents are almost never reprinted. For instance, nearly every major appellate court requires the parties involved to submit written briefs of their argument ahead of time. These briefs contain rich evidence about the legal reasoning of the parties as well as details of the case not present elsewhere. While LexisNexis/LN-Academic, Westlaw, HeinOnline, and LLMC-Digital all provide access to briefs from various state and federal appellate courts, these holdings are almost exclusively confined to only the most recent decades. The best comprehensive source for briefs from a single court is Gale’s U.S. Supreme Court Records and Briefs: 1832-1978, which provides access to the briefs and supporting documents for more than 75,000 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. LLMC-Digital is working on plans to digitize and make available a large corpus of appeals papers from several U.S. States as well as the British Privy Council.
Whereas legal professionals largely rely on established, printed, and cited cases in their work, legal scholars in other parts of the academic world need access to a broad range of legal material in order to answer their research questions. Currently researchers seeking original trial transcripts, case documents, evidence, warrants, and sources on the day-to-day workings of courts will largely find little help from large online databases. Providing access to these non-print or ephemeral legal documents should be the next great project for the major legal history databases. On-the-ground legal documents are especially important for studying law in parts of the world and time periods for which printed case reports and widely disseminated judicial decisions are uncommon. For instance, a researcher looking for printed case reports from the Bahamas for the 1920s would have no luck as none were produced, and would have to turn to archival sources instead.
Outside the world of commercial databases exist a handful of databases available for this kind of research, typically centered around a particular court or jurisdiction. Most notably for U.S. legal history, the University of New Orleans has digitized thousands of manuscript records and papers of the Louisiana Supreme Court for 1813–78. In English legal history, Robert Palmer and the University of Houston have digitized over seven million pages of manuscript records from the middle ages to the eighteenth century. For very recent material, lawyers and researchers can access nearly every piece of paper produced as part of a U.S. federal appellate or district court proceeding from the PACER site (Public Access to Court Electronic Records). However, this wealth of access potentially comes with a direct cost to the researcher: there is a per page document fee, which is capped per document but is not actually billed if the total costs do not exceed $15 per quarter.
Currently no single online legal resource exists as a one-stop destination for all the material a legal researcher might need. For contemporary legal research, LexisNexis/LN-Academic and Westlaw clearly provide the most comprehensive coverage. However, a researcher working on 19th-century American law will have the best results only when using a combination of several online resources: LLMC-Digital or HeinOnline for page images of state statutes and codes, HeinOnline's World Trials Library and Gale's Making of Modern Law: Trials for printed accounts of prominent trials, HeinOnline's law journal database for relevant commentary and analysis from legal experts of the time, back to Gale's Making of Modern Law: Treatises or LLMC-Digital's collection for 19th-century legal manuals, and then to HathiTrust or other public sites for contemporary state government publications like the proceedings of the state legislature.
Beyond the U.S. the picture is even more complex. A legal historian interested in colonial law in British India might start with the reported colonial cases in LLMC-Digital, dip briefly into Gale's Making of Modern Law: Trials before turning to ProQuest's Parliamentary Papers database for government reports, then to any number of subscription newspaper databases for coverage of Indian trials and legal debates, before wading through the various free India-based law websites that offer full-text access to 20th-century case reports not available in LLMC-Digital. Compounding this problem of myriad online sources is the uncertainty researchers face when trying to determine which service provides access to any given legal document. Court reports and state government document series have tended to change names over time, making a search for something as simple as a single year of a legislative journal quite frustrating. A database claiming to contain a title might omit certain volumes,contain flawed chronological information, or have opaque collection names. Understanding the use of a range of legal sources is more important than ever as an increasing volume of historical legal research material becomes available online.
Mitch Fraas, Judith and William Bollinger Fellow in Library Innovation, University of Pennsylvania Libraries
Many of CRL’s holdings on legislation and the history of the law are now being digitized and included in the LLMC-Digital database. This includes over 700 legal treatises, more than 2,200 volumes of federal and provincial legislative journals, and a current effort to supply U.S. state legislative journals.
The CRL holdings accessible through LLMC-Digital are listed in WorldCat and linked from CRL's online catalog.