You can find anything on the Internet, right? With a seemingly infinite supply of cat videos and a surprising bounty of freestyle canoeing exhibitions, it’s safe to say the entire breadth of the human experience gets a chance to shine somewhere on the ‘net. But despite being the greatest compendium of knowledge ever assembled, the Internet still has gaps. You just wouldn’t think that one of those gaps would be something as critically important as the law.
Justice is (Mostly) Blind
The basis of the recent Supreme Court decision on gay marriage can be summed up with one of the more admirable, if not idealistic, maxims in American jurisprudence: whatever your race, color, creed, religion, or sexual orientation, you are entitled to equal treatment under the law. Although the idea of equality under the law was seemingly affirmed by one of the biggest cases of the 21st century, it’s understandable if you can’t completely fight the urge to roll your eyes when you hear it. With black men getting 20% longer prison sentences than white men for the same crime, it’s only right that you question how tight that blindfold over Lady Justice’s eyes really is.
Incarceration without Representation
Though racial prejudice—unconscious or not—can certainly undermine the fairness of our legal system, economic inequality can have a serious effect as well. An estimated 80% of the poor’s legal needs go unmet. Though everyone is constitutionally guaranteed legal counsel for criminal cases, no such guarantee exists for civil cases.
The consequences of losing a civil case can be just as severe as criminal cases: namely, loss of income, loss of your house, and in some cases (such as failure to pay child support), loss of your very freedom. And when you can’t afford a lawyer, you’re left trying to avoid those potentially devastating consequences on your own.
Not Even Google Can Help You
This is where the Internet is supposed to enter the fray. If you were stuck confronting the labyrinth of the law without a guide, you’d probably do what you’d do whenever you get disoriented: ask the Internet to show you the way out. Unfortunately, the best you’d find would probably be a random forum with some poor sap asking strangers with dubious credentials your same question. And the unhelpful answer those strangers provide will inevitably be: “Get a lawyer.”
You can seek to educate yourself more directly on the law by looking up statutes (the laws passed through legislation), which are generally available online. But those statutes have been interpreted by various courts, and those varying interpretations have just as much effect as the statutes themselves. Other times there are no statutes at all on the subject, and the relevant law is completely drawn from court decisions (this is called case law). You cannot find, much less realistically navigate, three hundred years of court decisions with a general-purpose search engine.
Help Exists, but You Can’t Afford It
So how do lawyers do it? They use incredibly effective, searchable databases with cases and statutes (among many other sources). One problem: these services happen to be wildly expensive. You can pay per search, but make sure you know what you’re looking for, because each search will cost you a minimum of $5. You can also pay per month, but even the most basic plan fetches a flat rate of $84.
You will also be charged extra if you read documents that are not covered on your bare bones plan which, presumably, will include many of the documents you’ll want to read. Basically, if you can’t afford a lawyer, you probably can’t afford to do your own research, either.
These services—and there really are only two: Lexis and Westlaw—get away with hiding what would be otherwise public domain material behind a paywall because they add some serious value to the plain text. The services identify the key parts of cases, index them, link them together and, critically, let you know if they have since been overruled. Whichever side has access to these services—i.e., whichever side has a lawyer—is at a distinct advantage.
The Internet Can Help After All
Two lawyers are working to make sure everybody can have that kind of advantage. Joanna Huey and Jacob Heller have taken cues from Wikipedia and and the annotated lyrics site RapGenius and are attempting to harness the power of crowdsourcing. They’re calling their website Casetext and they’re hoping to level the playing field when it comes to equality of access to the law.
How Casetext Will Work
Like Wikipedia and RapGenius, the project hopes to draw on the collective wisdom of a few hundred or thousand power users to annotate cases the way Lexis and Westlaw do. Unlike Wikipedia or RapGenius, however, editors will not be nameless. They hope legal minds will seek to increase their reputations by contributing with their real names on the site.
To stay afloat however, they do plan on charging for some premium features. One such feature might be a “heat map” that would show what blurbs from cases are most frequently cited. Still, that type of feature seems more like an added bonus, as the real value would be in what’s free: the access to thousands of annotated and indexed cases, laws, and other scholarly sources like law review articles. You know: the stuff you actually need to defend yourself in court.
But Will It Actually Work?
Of course, with a site like this, it isn’t really worth too much unless a community forms to support it. Investors seem to believe that because they’ve built it, users will come: Casetext has already received $8 million in funding. And though it’s in its infancy, it already has a quarter of a million users. However, whether it will grow to be the legal Wikipedia remains to be seen. If it does, it will go a long way towards ensuring equal access to the law and, in turn, making us all equal under the law—just as it was always intended.
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