The current Big Idea in the legal / library blog world is the Free Legal Web (FLW). Originally mooted by Nick Holmes, the idea is to pull all of the content currently floating about the ether (legal professionals blog posts, Government information etc) into one portal. That in itself is a big enough task, but what doesn’t seem to be clear yet is…who is this Free Legal Web for?
The people involved so far seem to be legal professionals and IT specialists. The legal professionals will be working out some way of getting the useful materials together, and persuading other legal professionals that giving up their valuable time and work (such as blog postings) for this enterprise will be a worthwhile investment, and will reap them rewards in the end. The IT professionals job will be to write the scripts and programmes that will get everything together in the one place, and working well with all the other bits and pieces.
That’s all lovely (although it’s hard to tell what’s actually being done, as the discussions are going on behind an invite-only Google Group, which to me, kind of defeats the purpose of harnessing the collective intelligence of the legal and information professionals), but when this all singing, all dancing portal is up and running, who’s going to be using it? I would have thought this was a core question, to be settled right at the start, yet it doesn’t seem to have been discussed at any point.
If you’re designing a portal to work alongside the subscription legal databases like Westlaw and LexisNexis, then I assume it’s being aimed at people already working in the law, and therefore able to understand and interpret the information being presented to them there. The content will be academic / in depth, and of relevance to other members of the legal profession. Certain assumptions can be made about the level of knowledge and understanding of the user, and their grasp of the content. It also means it’s unlikely to be being used by members of the general public. Since legal professionals are likely to be persuaded into contributing to the FLW by the prospect of it eventually increasing their business through building of a reputation, this is not a good start.
If it’s designed for the general public, to allow them access to the elusive laws they’re meant to keep within, then good interpretation of the law is needed, not just access. People working in the law can forget just how difficult it is to find out what legislation means for people without access to subscription databases, information professionals to check for currency and further discussions of legal points…and even the language of legislation, while precise and succinct, can be incredibly confusing for someone with no experience of reading it, confronted with it for the first time. Content for this FLW would need a different focus – explaining the law and its impact on the general public, with references to the original case law rather than references to law reports inaccessible to the general public. Guides equivalent to first year law students introductions to the various aspects of the law would be needed. Clear signalling of whether legislation applies to all of the UK, or only the devolved areas would be essential. In other words, it would be a very different beast then the FLW designed for legal professionals.
So…is it a Professional Free Legal Web, or a Public Free Legal Web?