Annual Meeting 2009

Finding Accurate Law Text Online Nearly Impossible, Panelists Say #ABAChicago

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It sounded easy.

Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s counsel, Denley Chew, slapped down some $2 bills and challenged a room of lawyers and legal researchers with laptops and iPhones to find the authoritative text of the landmark Fugitive Slave Act online.

“Authoritative” was the catch. The money remained untouched.

Panelists declared that finding accurate text of a law—on government websites, LexisNexis, Westlaw—is almost impossible. The recession forced state and federal governments to post laws online rather than print them. But Mary Alice Baish, government relations director for the American Association of Law Libraries, says there is no national or international body that ensures those online postings are accurate or updated with amendments.

“I don’t think the problem will end until someone sues over because the decision was a $10 million case was based on an inaccurate version of a law,” Chew said. “Until that market solution, we’ll be dealing with cracks and fissures.”

The AALL conducted a 2007 survey that discovered that eight states and the District of Columbia refer lawyers and judges seeking the text of a law to official sources so different that the versions conflict. States that posted laws online only had no consistent way of maintaining older versions of an amended law or showing errors had been corrected.

“The history of law is disappearing; older versions of a law, amendments, show the thought process of a people and how they evolved,” observed ABA Legal Technology Research Center director Catherine Reach.

Global Legal Information Network at the Law Library of Congress provided the hopeful glimmer. Trusted officers of the court in dozens of jurisdictions, from the Congo to Canada, authenticate legal documents from their countries with an encrypted certificate. GLIN director Janice Hyde proudly said over 170,000 legal instruments have been authenticated.

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