No-cost Canadian legal research tools

  • March 26, 2018
  • Kim Nayyer

Legal research is often a necessary investment, to meet ethical obligations, to discover and advance a client’s best options, and to assess the current state of the law on a subject. Legal research is also often time-consuming and costly.

But lawyers have excellent primary and secondary research material options available at no cost that suffice in many circumstances – and they are constantly improving.

CanLII enhancements

Early promises of the web included dissemination of useful information and wide availability of helpful professional tools. Lately, we’re witnessing much of the internet overtaken by less useful information, and content filtered through ever fewer lenses.

At the same time, the open law movement has been quietly flourishing: Witness the recent growth of CanLII. It cannot do everything the commercial legal databases can do, but its improvements in features and content are outpacing expectations. Even as I teach CanLII in successive terms, I must catch up on new content and feature updates.

The scope of CanLII’s primary law databases shows that, whereas much content still dates only to the turn of the millennium, a few courts have supplied cases dating farther back. And the Supreme Court of Canada case collection is complete.

What’s perhaps surprising is CanLII’s extensive coverage of board and tribunal decisions. The range and scope varies among jurisdictions. Nevertheless, to those looking elsewhere for a year or two, the breadth of content in this category will be welcome news. For instance, we have nearly 40 years of Canadian Human Rights Board decisions and, among QuĂ©bec’s long list of tribunal content, we have twenty years of decisions of Conseil de la magistrature and over a hundred thousand decisions of the Administrative Tribunal of QuĂ©bec.

Other CanLII features include a basic legislation noting-up feature by which a hyperlinked section number links to cases that cite that section. Legislation includes other tools and information, such as versions at previous points in time, links to regulations (or enabling statute), and a note-up template. Cases offer pdf presentation, a “headnote” feature showing case history, links to cited cases and legislation, and other cases that cite the one you’re looking at.

Secondary content in CanLII

Other enhancements begin to move CanLII beyond a primary law source. A small collection of ebooks and other secondary content link to primary law in CanLII. But a growing venture is CanLII Connects, a source of summaries and comments linked to cases, and linked from case headnotes. CanLII Connects itself led to a new initiative to invite users to flag negative treatment of a case by a later one. These features aren't comprehensive – far from all the case law in CanLII has a summary, a comment, or a treatment flag—though the collection is growing. For the lawyer contributors, CanLII Connects offers an opportunity to demonstrate knowledge in a field while contributing to public legal information.

Research management

A tool I use regularly is Lexbox. Formerly available as a browser extension, it’s now built into the CanLII pages. A user can create a free Lexbox account, set up folders, and add cases and legislation along with personal annotations. Lexbox features include options to save and rerun search queries, and to set alerts of new results from the query.

Lexbox isn’t exclusive to CanLII: It’s compatible with the Supreme Court of Canada, the Federal Courts and Tax Court, and Ontario’s and BC’s legislation sites. Interestingly, CanLII recently acquired Lexum, the creator of Lexbox. Lexum has a prominent place in Canadian legal information technology: Before it developed the CanLII platform, it devised the Supreme Court of Canada decisions site and it now works with other bodies in Canada and beyond. Besides search and document display tools, Lexum is engaged in partnerships and machine learning projects, suggesting more is on the horizon for CanLII.

Blogs

The Canadian Law Blogs List, also known as lawblogs.ca, is a comprehensive directory of Canadian legal writing on the web. Lawblogs.ca is well organized and sorts blogs by substantive area, jurisdiction, and industry categories. Because lawyers can see which firm, lawyer, or professor is the owner or author of blog, we can evaluate various perspectives, even where substantive subject is the same. Though we must use blogs with caution, lawyers and academics do literally put their reputations on the line when they blog.

No-cost content available to members of Bars

Many lawyers have available to them, without direct cost, an excellent secondary content collection. Several jurisdictions (including BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario) offer Bar members access, often by remote login, to HeinOnline’s licensed legal journals. The ability to search journal archives, save and rerun searches, and set alerts can assist research process mapping and effectiveness.

HeinOnline collections also carry mostly complete digitized primary law from Canadian jurisdictions; this digital availability can largely replace paper-based legislative history tracing.

Some law society or courthouse libraries offer digital editions of good quality legal books, such as those published by Emond or Irwin Law. In some jurisdictions lawyers can access these remotely.

When a commercial legal database is necessary, many lawyers are able to access Lexis Advance Quicklaw or WestlawNext Canada through law society or courthouse libraries. Availability varies again across jurisdictions and often includes day and after-hours on-site access.

Lawyers should check with their respective law society or courthouse libraries system for availability and access instructions.

Legal literature in online repositories

Legal academics often feature work on the Legal Scholarship Network of SSRN, which contains hundreds of thousands of full text articles, downloadable without charge.

Some academics prefer to send their scholarly output to non-commercial repositories. LawArXiv is one newer non-profit open legal scholarship repository. This site is worth bookmarking, though at this stage it hasn’t yet built up much Canadian content.

Finally, many university library systems host general research repositories which may contain legal scholarship. Lawyers can check a directory of open access repositories to find relevant sites, but be aware that few Canadian university repositories collect exclusively law papers.

Kim Nayyer is Associate University Librarian for the Law, Legal Research & Writing Program at the University of Victoria’s School of Law