It gets over 750 000 hits daily, has more than four million searchable documents and has helped develop similar systems in countries like the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Liberia, Samoa and India. The team behind the Australasian Legal Information Institute (AustLII) reveals how its site has become the most popular online free-access resource for Australian legal information.
“Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” says Co-Director of AustLII Andrew Mowbray. “Philosophically, we believe the public has a right to access public legal information.”
AustLII, now in its 18th year of operation, was set up in 1995 by Mowbray and the University of New South Wales’ (UNSW) Graham Greenleaf, thanks to an Australian Research Council (ARC) grant.
Mowbray details how, at the time, online legal information was being provided by a government-endorsed, commercially run service at a cost of up to $720 an hour.
“The government had given the commercial operator a monopoly to be the only source of legal information online in Australia. Yet they were peaking at about four simultaneous users. There was no concept of free access to law at that time. The web had just come along and we felt from a practical point of view that things needed to change.”
With a decade’s experience in computerised law systems and building large-scale hypertext systems, Mowbray set about writing the software. Greenleaf was responsible for acquiring data for the launch of what was to become the AustLII facility.
Mowbray says, “In that first year we had to do a lot of things very quickly, at a time when government believed that they should be making money from selling the law. Some of the technology we’d been developing flowed naturally into the web when it became available, and the web provided the delivery platform that had been missing up to that point.”
The pair, together with initial staff members Geoff King and Philip Chung (now a Co-Director himself), managed to launch the service with Commonwealth legislation in mid-1995. On the strength of that, the High Court supplied AustLII with their data. By the end of the year AustLII had 17 databases.
Today, AustLII publishes over 530 Australasian legal databases, including decisions from over 100 courts and tribunals. It is regarded as the broadest national service that exists anywhere in the world.
“About half of our main users are practising lawyers. The rest are a mix of academics and students, government departments and commercial organisations. Ten per cent are probably regular members of the community trying to resolve a dispute particular to them,” says Mowbray.
“We publish primary and secondary legal materials, predominantly legislation and case law in a common law system like ours. We also have the largest collection of Australian law journal articles of any online source – currently over 50 000 articles.”
With AustLII’s services setting such a high benchmark, Mowbray says commercial operators have to work harder to give their products a viable market advantage. “Australia is very fortunate in that not only do we have possibly the world’s best free service, we also have some of the best commercial services.
“For a small country like Australia, that wouldn’t necessarily have happened unless there was the competition that AustLII provided. The legal information sphere is a space where we all have our own place, and we think that’s a healthy way to be.”
The charity model of AustLII as a foundation means it relies on donations from as little as $10 to as much as $50 000. Generating about $1 million a year, the donations cover the database’s upkeep and maintenance and enable it to stay a free service.
“The people who can afford to chip in help make a service that’s available to them, but also to those who can’t afford to pay,” says Mowbray. “That’s a really good outcome for a very small amount of money. $1 million a year is not very much money when you think about what we’re actually doing and the fact that the usage of it is so extensive.”
Chung, who moved to UNSW from UTS last year, became AustLII’s Executive Director in 1999. He says, “The strong collaboration between UNSW and UTS has resulted in over 20 shared ARC research and infrastructure grants as well as other competitive funding.
“Besides establishing free access to law in Australia, a major impact of AustLII has been to influence the development of similar research infrastructure facilities internationally. Free access to law is necessary in supporting the rule of law and for maintaining civil society.”
The team has played a major role in establishing the Free Access to Law Movement (FALM). There are now 48 FALM members, many of whom AustLII cooperates with internationally to help establish and maintain systems similar to AustLII.
“In particular, we do a lot of work in the Pacific where we assist with the operation of the Pacific Islands Legal Information Institute (PacLII). We also do quite a lot of work in Africa, particularly working with the Southern African Legal Information Institute (SAFLII),” says Mowbray.
“In the past few years we’ve also set up systems in Liberia and Samoa. More generally, we’ve helped to establish and promote the idea of free access to law in common law countries around the world.
“This has been particularly significant in developing countries. Providing free and public access to legislation and decisions of courts supports the operation of the rule of law. This transparency also helps to promote business confidence and potentially increases international trade and other external interactions.”
Last year, AustLII’s research impact was recognised when they were selected by the Australian Technology Network of Universities (ATN) and the Group of Eight (Go8) as one of the case studies used to highlight the impact of research produced by the Australian university sector.
“The Excellence in Innovation for Australia (EIA) exercise was a major undertaking of the ATN and most of the Go8 to develop a complementary measure to Excellence in Research for Australia, which basically focuses on publication and more traditional outputs,” says Mowbray.
“Universities were asked to put forward up to 20 case studies each, with a panel of experts ranking them based on research impact in Australia. Out of that exercise they chose four to showcase in their report, and one of them was AustLII.”
The EIA trial helps recognise projects that have high social impact but don’t necessarily fit into the existing measures, says Mowbray.
“AustLII is an efficient research infrastructure facility. We’re producing a resource and conducting research that is designed to produce social good as much as it is to provide research infrastructure supporting academic research. Introducing the idea of impact into the agenda is a very positive initiative in our view.”