English law and Scots law are based on acts passed by Parliament and by decisions made by courts which other courts must follow, which is called common law. But many of the rulings which make up the body of common law across the UK are very old and only published by commercial law publishers.
BAILII (the British And Irish Legal Information Institute) has said, though, that it will publish nearly 3,000 of the most important rulings, as chosen by academics, for free by this summer.
BAILII executive director Joe Ury told technology law podcast OUT-LAW Radio that the copyright in judgments dating back into the nineteenth century is disputed, and that often the only records of them are those published by commercial publishers, who claim that they own the rights in the rulings.
"What we have now is various publishers and transcribers claiming copyright interest in the bulk of judgments that go back into the nineteenth century," said Ury.
To provide access to these documents BAILII founded the Open Law Project with support from academic computing funding body the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC).
"We felt that if any judgments should be freed so that the public can have access to them it should be this core of judgments, which basically make up the judgment side of the common law system," said Ury. "It seems natural that a member of the public should be able to find out what that reasoning is, it shouldn't be cloaked in secrecy."
The project approached academics at universities all over the UK and asked them to list the most important rulings in their area of expertise. It then sought permission to publish those rulings one by one.
"It's been a long slog," said Ury. He said that the project was returned a list of 2,600 judgments, and that it has now published 1,900 of those. He said that in total it will publish 2,900 verdicts by June of this year when the project ends.
"These are considered to be the most important judgments in these areas of law," said Ury.