New Zealand Law Society - The miracle of NZLII

The miracle of NZLII

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Every minute 49 successful online requests are made for information from a New Zealand website which provides free access to a wide range of information on our law.

The New Zealand Legal Information Institute – or NZLII – is a significant contributor of primary and secondary resources comprising cases, legislation, university law journals and materials on law reform. At 30 June 2017, NZLII had 152 databases containing 324,252 documents going back to 1840 – and there had been nearly 13 million successful requests for information since 1 January 2017.

The NZLII website is not the glossiest on the internet. A mix of black and blue text, the formatting of the information – particularly the case law – leaves a lot to be desired (although the cases can be converted into a facsimile PDF). Searching the databases can be difficult and there is no commentary or analysis. NZLII is raw law – but there is a lot of it, it is up-to-date and it is free. The historical scope is also unique. You’re probably only going to find that 1996 Liquor Licensing Authority decision on NZLII.

Widely used

It’s clear that the resource is widely used. Information from NZLII shows that law firms, tertiary and other educational institutions, media, government agencies and a wide range of individuals and businesses are regular visitors. During 2016 the addresses of visitors to NZLII included 188 country suffixes – about 95% of the countries in the world.

Behind the scenes

The usage information hides an astonishing fact – what is certainly New Zealand’s largest free resource of legal information is managed by just one person: law library assistant Judi Eathorne-Gould. Apart from one-off grants for specific projects NZLII has subsisted for the last three years on $15,000 a year from Otago University where it is based. That is about to run out.

Mrs Eathorne-Gould is passionate about NZLII and volunteers some of her own time, in evenings and on weekends, to help keep it updated.

After completing an LLB she decided that legal practice was not the way she wanted to go: “My normal response to the question why I am not a lawyer is that I believe in justice and that is not necessarily the same as the law.”

NZLII was established in 2004 as a joint project of the Otago University Law Faculty, the Canterbury University Law Library and the Australian-based Australasian Legal information Institute (AustLII). The driving force, and the other NZLII hero, was Otago legal academic and now Law Commissioner Donna Buckingham. A $50,000 grant from the Law Foundation in 2007 gave impetus to the fledgling site. The Law Foundation has since provided a further $116,771 in funding for five separate projects.

Free Access to Law

NZLII is part of an inter-connected network of over 50 organisations which make up the Free Access to Law Movement (FALM). The FALM Declaration on Free Access to Law states that public legal information is part of the common heritage of humanity and maximising access to this information promotes justice and the rule of law. It also holds that public legal information is digital common property and should be accessible to all on a non-profit basis and free of charge.

The FALM principle of free law has been a driving force for NZLII and the other LIIs around the world. The sale of legal information earns over $50 million annually in New Zealand with much of it going to the multinationals LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters. You need to pay for added value such as granular searchability, commentary and analysis, but NZLII offers free access to primary sources from 1840 until today.

In the 13 years it has existed and kept its code of free access, NZLII has lived from day to day with short bursts of prosperity. It has been kept going and developed largely by the voluntary inputs of Mrs Eathorne-Gould and a team of helpers. It has also drawn on the co-operation of a number of justice sector organisations.

How it is put together

The actual website is kept going by NZLII’s parent, AustLII. Established in 1995 to improve access to justice through access to legal information, AustLII is funded by over 170 law schools, courts and State and Commonwealth justice sector agencies, law firms and individuals, with over A$1 million pledged in 2017. NZLII would not exist without AustLII.

“I like to say we are like the millennial living in their parents’ basement. We reside in AustLII’s basement – they provide the technical support and infrastructure. All data is over in Sydney,” says Judi Eathorne-Gould.

“It does lead to bottlenecks as anything we want done has to wait until AustLII has the time to do it. The benefit they get is that they can include our growth as outcomes for grants they apply for.”

The actual information which appears on NZLII is garnered from many places, often with number 8 wire initiative. Cases from the District Court and High Court are identified with scripts written by Joe Ury of the British and Irish LII, BAILII. The Court of Appeal sends its decisions to NZLII and the Supreme Court loads its own decisions.

“Loading is done via email – one emails the decision to the server at AustLII in plain text, with the metadata inside the body of the email and the AustLII process loads them from the emails twice a day for most of the databases. For databases we have identified as high priority or critical – due to suppression issues – that loading takes place every 3-4 hours,” Mrs Eathorne-Gould says.

Much of the legislation – current Acts, regulations, SOPs and bills – is received from a feed from the Parliamentary Counsel Office website. Again, the processing is done by AustLII, but it’s automated.

There is, of course, a lot more. Name suppression possibilities mean constant human scrutiny is needed and there are reams of paper decisions from a multitude of courts and tribunals which need to be organised, scanned, checked and loaded. A lot of work has gone into creating the databases and hundreds of thousands of documents available to anyone who visits NZLII.

Keeping things going

“At the moment there’s just me. I usually have at least one law student doing around 8-10 hours a week straight-forward loading plus any project work in university break periods, but funds have not permitted that this year,” Mrs Eathorne-Gould says.

The Law Foundation has made a valuable contribution to NZLII, but is only able to fund on a project basis. The New Zealand Law Librarians’ Association also provided funding to support digitisation of the New Zealand Gazette Law Reports on NZLII. Apart from the now-expired contribution from Otago University, invaluable assistance from Canterbury University’s School of Law, the processing and hosting by AustLII, and the information provided by the courts, PCO and some other organisations, plus input from law librarians, NZLII is on its own.

“We have only received a donation from two New Zealand solicitors in our entire existence,” says Mrs Eathorne-Gould. She says she is envious of the funding model for the Canadian LII – CanLII – in which every lawyer pays a contribution of around $40 each year as part of their registration or licensing fees to fund CanLII: “You just have to look at how great CanLII is, how many innovations they have done such as CanLII Conects, to see the benefit of such stable funding.”

User contributions

NZLII encourages user contributions. “You can access a donation form from the home page or contact us via the Feedback email,” she says.

“If NZLII were to fold or to cease to provide as wide a variety of information as it currently does, then this would be quite devastating for legal researchers,” says New Zealand Law Librarians’ Association President Stephanie Carr.

Ms Carr says NZLII is one of the key legal information sources that law librarians can choose to utilise. She says it offers a public service in providing access to free legal information.

“Members of the public and overseas users might find that this is the only open access source that can provide quality and authoritative legal information to assist them. As the website continues to grow and add decisions from specialist bodies its value increases. This value is also recognised by the Parliamentary Counsel Office, which redirects users of the official legislation website to NZLII for historic Acts and bills.”

A move to online access for legal information and removal of print sources means many libraries are downsizing and relying on websites like NZLII to be the source of this information, Stephanie Carr says.

“If NZLII ceased to exist, key historic documents that had limited print access could be lost, including for example Fenton’s Important Judgments, which provided decisions of the Native Land Court from 1866.”

The Law Librarians’ Association says it would endorse a push for the central Government to take a more active and concerted effort to fund and support NZLII.

Justice Minister Amy Adams says she has been advised that the Ministry of Justice does not provide funding for NZLII, and has not been approached by the administrators seeking funding.

She notes that information on judicial decisions is also distributed on the ministry’s Judicial Decisions Online website and websites for the District Court, the Supreme Court, and a number of specialist courts and tribunals.

“I am aware of NZLII and its usefulness in bringing together both past and present judicial and tribunal decisions, and wider legal information, in one place,” Ms Adams says.

What would keep NZLII going?

Judi Eathorne-Gould estimates that to achieve “basic continuance” (loading current decisions in all the tribunals and courts) would cost around $30,000 a year (“less than a cup of coffee per lawyer in New Zealand”).

Taking a more ambitious approach, she has a long “hit list” of projects that would keep NZLII growing into an even larger and more accessible resource. As well as loading older District Court, High Court and Court of Appeal decisions, a New Zealand Gazettes database would be a welcome addition, along with updating the database of international Treaties between New Zealand and other countries.

“I would love to do something like AustLII has with its Indigenous Law Resources. For that we would need partners – probably from the other universities and significant funding. But how cool would that be to have the equivalent for Māori.”

NZLII’S biggest case law databases (documents at 30 June 2017)

Forum

Documents

High Court

31,049

Liquor Licensing Authority

23,515

Auckland District Licensing Commission

16,154

Employment Relations Authority

12,254

Gazette Law Reports

10,898

Advertising Standards Authority

10,617

Court of Appeal

10,235

Environment Court

8,117

Accident Compensation (District Court)

7,232

Refugee Status Appeal Authority

6,754

NZLII’S biggest non-case law databases (documents at 30 June 2017)

Subject

Documents

Historical bills

31,449

Regulations as made

21,393

Acts as enacted

15,972

Consolidated (current) regulations

5,173

Consolidated (current) Acts

3,824

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