Legal Databases for Enhanced Legal Research
by Shrisha Sapkota
Traditionally, legal research was conducted manually using a law library, books, periodicals, indexes, and digests. Black’s law dictionary defines legal research as “The finding and assembling of authorities that bear on a question of law.” Legal research slowly became 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. The digital legal information for such research were used and stored in CD-ROMs. Later in the 1990s, the World Wide Web became another medium for legal publishing.
The Boolean Search technique was predominately used at this time which worked by searching a particular term or group of terms in a specific relationship to one another. Besides Boolean Search, a plain language search was brought into use by several CALR service providers that ranks the first 20 documents that best match the search. The first ranked document is the one that most closely matches the terms in the search.
Eventually, the introduction of the internet eventually led to the establishment of computerised legal databases as databases companies started incorporating internet connectivity to their software. This made legal databases for legal research software more accessible to lawyers, paralegals, students and people in general. Alongside legal databases, big data, legal artificial intelligence, internet of things and blockchain in the legal industry are important technologies uplifting legal research work.
Computer Assisted Legal Research
Legal research in today’s context is highly dependent on Computer Assisted Legal Research (CALR). CALR is the technology that allows lawyers, judges, academicians and students to bypass the traditional law library and locate statutes, court cases, and other legal references in minutes using a personal computer, research software or the internet, and an online connection. CALR provides fundamental tools of the legal profession i.e., court opinions, cases laws, statutes and regulations and other law related materials. These tools are stored in extensive databases and used to fetch primary and secondary sources of legal research.
The Legal Database
A database is an organised collection of structured information, or data, typically stored electronically in a computer system. Data comprises facts, observations, perceptions, numbers, characters, symbols, images, etc. which are processed, stored, organised in data bases which are accessed, managed and represented through a database management system by the user.
Legal database is the database used and managed in the field of law. Legal database consists of thousands of legal resources. Primary sources of such resources include constitutions, statutes, agreements, cases and regulations whereas secondary sources include journals, articles, books, commentaries, encyclopaedias, dictionaries etc. These resources are modelled and processed in indexes, rows and columns and are accessed depending on their licence and subscription policies. Legal databases are usually not free but universities are provided with institutional access to their content, allowing students to use them though their university IDs.
Usage of Legal Database
- Journals and General Legal Literature
Legal Databases serve as a perfect place to search for journals. Databases of journal articles are sometimes called journal indexes. They contain information about journal articles. They provide the user information about the publisher of the journal article and on what topic and where to find it in the print or electronic journals. In a journal index, database records list the author(s), title, and publication date of a journal article along with the journal name, volume and issue. Records can also include a summary or abstract of the article, keywords, or subject headings that reflect the content of the article, and the authors’ affiliation or institution where the research was conducted. Some records contain links to the complete article or full-text. Journals in such databases can be searched by their name, subject, type and name of author or using citation linker. Identifying keywords used by authors, categorization and narrowing down research from an overwhelming amount of research can be also opted by researchers using a database.
Subscription fees and paywall can sometimes be a burden for legal researchers but several open access journals in the market provide scholars, students, and researchers with free journal articles. Indicators like publication history, editorial board, peer review, indexing, number of times the journal was cited etc. can be used to identify legitimate journal databases.
Similarly, 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 legal literature is of immense nature but it is widely accessible through a variety of online platforms. Several databases serve to store indigenous and local knowledge, helping communities to compute their traditions and bring them into the legal limelight.
- Case laws
Court decisions often may be accessed via subscription databases and the Internet. A lot of cases and precedents can be searched in Google but precise details containing case issues, effective litigation strategies, progressive jurisprudence, and creative implementation tactics are lacking in such general search engines. Several government websites are increasingly offering free access to court decisions online as well. Websites of law ministries, courts or any concerned ministry or department put up case laws and decisions for reading and research purposes. Name of cases, date of the decision, specified jurisdiction etc. can be used to fetch case laws in national and international case laws databases. Comprehensive database containing case law software consists of cases, including per decision, dockets, oral arguments, and joint appendices and amicus briefs.
These databases further consist of
case synopsis (editorially created summaries of the procedural history and holding of a case), case headnotes (editorially created snapshots of each court ruling in a case), statutory annotations (editorially created indices listing every case that has interpreted or applied a particular statute), and legal citators (editorially created reference guides telling users whether a legal authority may still be cited in court as good law).
Case law referencing is an important part of legal proceedings and a vital tool to understand the interpretation of law. Legal databases compile cases, their facts and decisions which helps users to search and cite them in their respective cases.
- International laws, Foreign laws and Municipal laws
Legal Databases contain a variety of municipal and international laws. They provide a platform to access laws of other nations i.e. foreign laws as well. Legal databases consist of constitutions, statutes, regulations, treaty-conventions, legislative proceedings and legislative history compiled for legal professionals to use for their research. Some special databases provide access to parliamentary debates, working papers, and printed reports etc. which help courts to interpret existing laws by identifying the legislature’s true intentions. Users can search for relevant statutes and conventions by anticipating words used in those documents or browsing their table of content. Foreign laws can be searched by the basis of their jurisdiction in these database setup.
- Reference management
Citation databases are collections of referenced papers/ articles/ books and other material entered into an online system (database) in a structured and consistent way. The key subjects and descriptors of a document entered in a database allows for precise searching of relevant literature for the given research. In courtroom setup, the concept of citation stickiness developed by Kevin Bennandro has been helpful. According to his findings, a citation is sticky if it appears in one of the parties’ briefs and then again in the court’s opinion. Such an element of stickiness shows that the cases cited in the lawyer’s brief are cited in the court’s opinion. This facilitates the process of citing relevant authorities and provides a persuasive argument and precedent for the client and the court. Citator on the other hand is a published list of cases, statutes, and other sources of law showing their subsequent history (as of being cited in other cases) and status (as in having been overruled by another case). This supports in forming a comprehensive bibliography and literature for research.
- Legal Dictionaries
Legal Dictionaries database is composed of several legal dictionaries of various subject matters. Users are able to access full image-based PDFs of dictionary pages in these legal dictionary databases. These legal dictionaries assist in finding meanings of legal jargons and terminologies and also several legal maxims and phrases used in normal legal discourse.
Importance of Legal database in Legal Research
Legal database has been changing the environment of legal research. Its significance is unrefuted. But in the past, law librarians who had invested their careers in the print system tended to greet computer assisted research with scepticism, if not hostility. On the other hand, commentators like Katsh writes that “The shift from print to electronic information technologies provides the law with a new environment, one that is less fixed, less structured, less stable and, consequently, more versatile and volatile. Also, many researchers believed availability of databases to be supplementary, rather than a replacement of, traditional research mechanisms.
- Enhanced accessibility:
Legal databases can support a larger database and execute searches in multiple databases simultaneously, and thus researchers using such database software, tend to cite to a greater variety of jurisdictions. Most databases have court opinions and cases and make them available for download on the same day they are issued. Old documents are preserved in the archive and retrieved when needed by the user. Legal databases provide a huge range of documents including federal and state case law, codes and regulations, treatises, law reviews, scholarly articles, mainstream news stories, as well as legal forms, public records, and attorney directories, accessible in a very easy manner.
Traditional printing methods and CD-ROM were not storage efficient. Resources for legal research are of huge quantities and legal databases are useful to store and manage all of them for easy and quick access. It saves space as well as protects the environment by minimising the use of paper and CD disks.
Documents in databases are easily transportable. They can be shared via emails or by using file transfer protocol which is a very basic interface that connects one computer with another to copy files. With this lawyers and paralegals can copy segments of a case or statute directly onto their computer.
Legal databases are huge time saviours for legal researchers. They help professionals retrieve a greater amount of case law in a given amount of time. It negates the delay between the creation of case law and its incorporation into print sources.
- Enhanced accuracy
Computerised legal research is generally more accurate than traditional methods because of the wide availability of sources for cross-checking purposes. Artificial intelligence and due diligence help legal software systems tackle any irregularities in documents.
Shortcomings of Legal Database in Legal Research
Legal databases are relatively new research mechanisms and many law firms and lawyers lack a deep understanding of technological usages. Financial barriers including a subscription to a database and their licence renewal is also an issue to many researchers of law. Complicated organisation and change of legal environment in the workspace to accept certain technologies into practice is often overlooked in this matter. The current standard of recognizing print collections over law firm databases as the official source of cases becomes a problem for lawyers in matters of submitting relevant authorities for a destined case. Additionally, the fear of being technology-dependent and ignoring traditional methods of book and case searches creates a possibility that a certain amount of the intuitive nature of research is lost since users are following link after link, with little thought to how the cases actually interact.
Legal research greatly relies on legal databases. Identifying a legal problem or issue, discovering information about such problem or issue, developing explanations or arguments about the problem, understanding sources of law, literature review and forming a conceptual and theoretical framework of research requires access to a large number of statutes, case laws, government publications, legal textbooks, dictionaries, journals which is possible through a comprehensive legal database. It is time and resource-efficient and assists in performing legal research of enhanced quality. Good legal research is imperative to maintain professionalism and ethics in the field of law.
 Lynn Foster & Bruce Kennedy, The Evolution of Research: Technological Developments in Legal Research, 2 J. APP. PRAc. & PROCESS 275, 279 (2000)
 Ethan Katsh, Law in a Digital World: Computer Networks and Cyberspace, 38 VILL. L. REV. 403 (1993).