Access to Justice Innovator Spotlight: Caselaw Access Project

Travis Lloyd
May 21 · 4 min read

Our work at Paladin is a part of a larger Access to Justice (A2J) ecosystem that is full of creative solutions for fixing the justice gap. To showcase some of the amazing work going on, we’ll be interviewing the teams behind a few of these exciting projects. Our goal is to pull back the curtain a bit on the design and iteration process, hopefully uncovering some strategies and learnings that will be useful to others working in this space.

Out first post focuses on a project coming out of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab. The Caselaw Access Project provides access to 360 years of U.S case law digitized from the collection of the Harvard Law School Library. Interested readers can start working with the data via the Caselaw Access Project API and Bulk Data Service. I spoke with Kelly Fitzpatrick*, a Research Associate at the Harvard Library Innovation Lab working on the project, to learn a bit about their process and learnings.

Q: What problem is your project addressing?

We’re addressing an access-to-law problem, which is an important component of the broader access-to-justice crisis. Right now, the way court decisions are published limits how people can access and use the law. Generally speaking, official court decisions have been put in books and in proprietary databases that few people can access. For cases that define our current legal landscape and have shaped our path to this point, that’s a big obstacle.

Q: How did you become aware of this problem?

How we access case law is hindered by how we get it in the first place, and what we can do with it once we have it. Here, we wanted to make all published U.S. case law freely available, and in formats that people could use to learn and build new things. This started with digitizing the collection of U.S. case law at the Harvard Law School Library, and making those 6.7 million cases available online to expand access to the law.

The digitization process in action

Q: What was the initial idea for your project and how has it evolved over time?

Since launching the CAP API and Bulk Data Service in Fall 2018, our focus has moved from making this resource available, to connecting this data with people to use it. Right now we’re thinking about new ways to explore and represent this dataset, and how we can push those working with the data to do the same.

Q: What’s been unexpected about the ways that people are using the data?

It has been exciting to see how people can use the same data set to ask different questions — from quantitative analysis to learn about judicial influence, to Natural Language Processing (NLP) to see how color is represented in case text. Here, people are not only asking different questions, but approaching those questions in different ways to learn new things about U.S. legal history.

Case law data breakdown by state

Q: Who are the main stakeholders in this project and how do you measure its impact?

We can think about stakeholders internally and externally. Internally, our team at the Harvard Library Innovation Lab working to make this data available as part of the Harvard Law School Library, and externally, the researchers that have been working with the data.

When we think about impact, we like to see how our data is being used and adapted in the wild. Here, it’s been more about the tangible things researchers are learning and building with the data than traditional metrics. In this space we’ve been happy to see examples develop in varied contexts of practice, like integrating CAP data into course assignments or using topic modeling to look at the resource in new ways.

Q: Do you have any advice for someone just starting an Access to Justice project?

In creating new channels for accessing the law, think about how to make connections between that work and the people you want it to reach.

Q: What’s the best part of your job?

In my role developing a research community around this dataset, it’s been great seeing users take an idea, and turn it into tangible work that can communicate themes in the data in different ways.

*L. Kelly Fitzpatrick is an open access and digital collections specialist living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is a Research Associate at the Harvard Library Innovation Lab working on the Caselaw Access Project. Kelly graduated with a B.A. from Hampshire College in 2013 and an M.S. from Simmons College School of Library and Information Science in 2015.

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Travis Lloyd

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Social Impact Technologist // Software Engineer @JoinPaladin.

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Empowering Pro Bono Champions