Please give generously….

There’s nothing flashy about the British & Irish Legal Information Institute (Bailii) website. There are simple links, an easy-to-use search engine – and literally thousands of judgments of criminal and civil cases from courts across the UK and Europe.

Bailii has been running for over a decade now, providing up-to-date transcripts of judgments online, for free. It is used by 40,000 individuals a week and costs just £160,000 a year to run. That’s about 0.6 per cent of the revenue generated by the City’s largest litigation team, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, in 2009-2010.

For years Bailii has been funded predominantly by donations from four sources: the Bar Council and the Inns of Court, the Law Society Charity, the Society for Computers and Law, and Her Majesty’s Courts Service. Each have given between £20,000 and £35,000 to keep Bailii going.

But the economic climate has taken its toll. The Society for Computers and Law, itself a charity funded solely by members, has had to withdraw its financial support – although, general manager Ruth Baker stresses, not its moral support – for at least the next year, after giving £177,500 since Bailii was launched. The Law Society Charity is also uncertain that it can support Bailii going forwards.

The contract with the Courts Service runs out in March next year and Bailii’s chief executive Joseph Ury must wait to see if it will be renewed.

So Bailii has launched an appeal for funds, which has gone viral among the legal blogging and tweeting circles. Ury says the appeal has helped already, but more is needed.

Ury stresses Bailii is not likely to fold imminently; the question is more one of long-term survival. He says many donations are for a three-year period. “I suspect after 2013 we’ll be doing this again,” Ury adds, although he hastens to add that every small contribution helps in the institute’s long-term financial planning.

And small contributions are what Bailii is mainly getting. The most generous individual set of chambers or solicitors’ firm so far is 2 Garden Court, which has pledged £2,500 a year between 2010 and 2013. Allen & Overy is giving £2,000 a year for four years beginning 2010 and Clifford Chance the same for three years.

Litigation powerhouse Herbert Smith gave £2,000 this year, as did Landmark Chambers and Essex Court Chambers. Bird & Bird, Bristows and Wilmer Hale (a US firm, it ought to be noted) all gave £1,000.

It’s great that these firms are supporting Bailii – but it should also be stressed that for them, £2,000 is a ridiculously small amount of money. It’s the equivalent of a pay rise to four one-year qualified associates at Clifford Chance this year, for instance.

Although the magic circle all give generously to charity it could be argued that giving to Bailii would be just as valuable, as it would maintain access to a tool used by large numbers of lawyers, students – and journalists – something which really does work in the public interest.

If the worst were to happen and, sometime in the next few years, Bailii were to collapse, UK legal research by all types of firms, sets and individuals would be massively and negatively impacted. Let’s hope that the profession collectively dips into its pockets and makes sure that does not happen.

More about Bailii’s appeal, including a list of current and past donors, can be found at http://www.bailii.org/bailii/appealdetails.html.