Regular readers will remember that last month I said how easy legal journalism was – you just sit in court and write down what people say. Technology has moved on and the job is now even easier. Four weeks ago I mentioned the unsolicited email I received from the head of litigation at a City law firm. He was offering several “bullet points” on the litigation involving Cherie Booth, her children’s nanny and the Mail on Sunday. In this column I ventured some opinions about his legal advice and the fact that he was offering it to journalists. In response, I received an email from someone in the same City firm. “Your article in The Lawyer was very funny,” he said unconvincingly. “Everyone wants to be famous for fifteen minutes. However, if you write about those offering briefings like that,” he added with a hint of menace, “you might find yourself stuck when you do not have the answers.”
But who needs solicitors when you have access to the very law itself? And where is the law to be found? In cases and statutes. And where are cases and statutes to be found? Online. Two electronic information services have recently been launched in the UK to provide these essential resources – the hard-to-spell BAILII (www.bailii.org) and the easier-to-remember Westlaw UK (www.westlaw.co.uk).
Here, I must declare an interest. Sweet & Maxwell, which owns Westlaw, has kindly given me a month’s free trial. BAILII, like so many good things on the internet these days, is completely free. Sweet & Maxwell’s managing director Wendy Beecham says that the two services complement each other. BAILII may be free, but Westlaw offers added value. Apparently there are teams of lawyers working away in a converted farm building above Mytholmroyd, a romantic-sounding village near Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire. Newly-hatched statutes and just-delivered judgments come in at one end of the electronic production line and are launched into cyberspace neatly packaged in the right context and ready-to-cite for the rest of their shelf life.
This is an attractive offer for those who cannot stomach raw judgments. I will never forget the first time I picked up a ruling from the House of Lords and found it did not come with a headnote. Who had won? Was it the appellant and cross-respondent (who seemed to have the support of two Law Lords) or the respondent and cross-appellant (who also had support from two Law Lords). It all turned on the fifth judge, who seemed to be agreeing with both sides.
Westlaw is heavily promoted. Once tobacco advertising is banned, the cigarette manufacturers hope you will think of their product every time you see the colour associated with a particular brand. Westlaw has also seized on a colour – a striking shade of cobalt blue. It dominates both advertisements and the website. The site itself is not yet as friendly as it could be. But Sweet & Maxwell says it is working on it. BAILII, though still under development, is extremely simple to use. Neither is as quick as I have to be – on a good day I am allowed half an hour between the delivery of a judgment and the broadcast of my summary. But who needs reporters when you have got computers?