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Law: Free, Understandable, Accessible

Ithaca, NEW YORK, October 24, 2012

About 250 people from 37 countries recently gathered at Cornell Law School to discuss free access to law.

Cornell’s Legal Information Institute (LII) hosted the international Law Via the Internet (LVI) conference, October 7-9. The conference celebrated the first time LVI has been held in the United States, as well as recognizing the LII’s twentieth anniversary year.


When Peter W. Martin, the Jane M.G. Foster Professor of Law, Emeritus and former dean, and Thomas R. Bruce, director of the LII, founded the institute in 1992, free access to law meant putting a few court cases on the newly available Internet. Welcoming the conference-goers, Cornell Law Dean Stewart Schwab said that in 1992 Martin and Bruce probably had no idea how their concept would grow.

Now, he noted, the LII accounts for 65 percent of Cornell’s web traffic, with 14 million visitors a year. Regulations, laws, and court cases are available online on 40 LII namesake websites and dozens of commercial sites. Forty countries have subscribed to the Declaration of Free Access to Law.

But making law accessible has also grown in complexity. In developed countries, online technology changes daily. In developing countries, just getting at the laws can be challenging.

For example, presenters from Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Swaziland, the Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and South Africa shared their experiences in creating legal information institutes. As Ufuoma Lamikanra, of the Nigerian Institute for Advanced Legal Studies, said, their task is “expensive, difficult and time consuming.” However, Thelma Julie, of the Seychelles Legal Information Institute, noted that their difficulties “draw attention to failings of the system.”

Even wealthy countries need more affordable legal service. In the opening keynote speech, “Liberating Law Yet Further,” Sir Richard Susskind, IT Adviser to the Lord Chief Justice of England, said that in England, many people who need legal help don’t look for it, because they see the law as intimidating and expensive. Susskind’s talk drew from his most recent book, The End of Lawyers? Rethinking the Nature of Legal Service.

The second keynote speaker, Clay Shirky, spoke about “Authority in an Age of Open Access." Shirky holds a joint appointment at New York University, in the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) and the Journalism Department. His 2008 book, Here Comes Everybody, The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, explores how networked collaboration is changing business and industry.

Law must not only be accessible, Shirky said, it must be comprehensible. And collaborative annotation, while controversial, makes things understandable. For example, he described an attempt by physicians to counteract Wikipedia articles on medicine. However, Shirky recounted, Wikipedia’s collaborative, non-expert approach created stronger, more detailed, and clearer information.

At the LVI-2012 gala dinner, Dean Schwab presented Martin and Bruce with commemorative sculptures that read: “Your vision, generosity, and dedication continue to further the rights of all people to know and understand the laws that govern them, without cost.”

Videos of the conference are available at

-- Judith Pratt