By Xavier Beauchamp-Tremblay
It is customary for most “year in review” type posts to be written before the end of the year. Unfortunately, our kids brought an unwelcome guest (a certain spiky virus that is) from school in early December. We had a rough time during that month and over the holidays. We’re all ok now, but this explains why I’m still writing about 2020 when it’s finally over.
It’s been a challenging year for everybody, including of course for us at CanLII and Lexum, but I admit that the type of work we do is well suited to being done remotely, which we already did extensively long before the pandemic. We’re lucky that while our founders didn’t have (biological) viruses in mind, building an entirely online legal information resource meant building something that adapts well to pandemics.
But our users probably had much more difficult circumstances to adapt to. And I suspect that having to “adapt” was the lesser evil, the real one being having to continue interacting with components of a system that has not adapted or that just ceased to function.
I know for instance that some courthouses continued to be as absurdly crammed with people as they usually are for most of the summer and fall. If you represent vulnerable people, chances are you couldn’t meet them on Zoom either. If you lost business or if the pandemic cost you your job, your friend’s Zoom fatigue is the least of your worries.
Of course, we can say that of workers in many different fields, starting with the health workers on the frontlines of this pandemic and the education workers who are
currently allowing me to write these lines free of constant interruptions and trampoline noises transmitting knowledge to my kids as I’m writing these lines. But first, CanLII is a legal website. Second, the rule of law doesn’t take a break (or at least it’s not supposed to). Third, if we don’t celebrate legal professionals, who will?
So we’ll allow ourselves to celebrate the heroes from the different legal professions who continued to do everything they could in this awful year to continue to serve their clients and therefore uphold the fundamental values of our rule-of-law-based society. Thank you!
And now for the year in review:
You have our CanLII Connects summary here and it is, as we say in this industry, incorporated by reference in the present post.
There was tons of awesome commentary news in 2020 (you can see it all here), but I will allow myself to highlight 3 commentary-related milestones:
In April, we completed a project funded by the New Brunswick Law Foundation to add 7,000 missing decisions published in New Brunswick Reports between 1969 and 2016 that were cited in the CanLII database. This project also included adding historical content to the New Brunswick annual statutes database back to 1973. This means that primary law coverage for the province of New Brunswick on CanLII now goes back 50 years.
In July, we announced that we had also completed a project funded by the Law Foundation of Ontario to add approximately 4,800 missing decisions from Reports of Family Law, published between 1968 and the present. These are important family law decisions, and we are pleased to make them available to people who need access to complex legal information on this subject, including self represented litigants, lawyers, and legal non-profits.
In September, we completed a project to add the annual and revised statutes of Saskatchewan to CanLII going back to the founding of the province in 1905 thanks to a grant from the Law Foundation of Saskatchewan. This added 9,355 documents to the website. Combined with other projects we have completed to add case law, this project means that we have good primary law coverage for Saskatchewan for over 100 years.
In November, we published 553 missing Prince Edward Island decisions from Newfoundland & Prince Edward Island Reports as part of a project funded by the Law Foundation of Prince Edward Island.
In December, we announced that we had completed a project to add the annual statutes for the Province of Manitoba to CanLII back to 1988 thanks to a grant from the Manitoba Law Foundation.
The following tribunals have been added to CanLII’s current coverage (in no specific order):
From a technology and features standpoint, 2020 started off with a bang as we rolled out our substantially improved noteup feature, which is now the spiciest in the industry. This release allows you to distinguish between citing cases that merely mention a decision in passing from those that contain a more substantial discussion, using our blue jalapeño scale to give an indication of the intensity of the discussion.
We continued to build upon that release, and in April we deployed a new version of this system where the noteup information feeds into a heatmap on case’s page sidebars so that users can quickly identify and navigate to the most important parts of a case, based on how frequently each paragraph of the case was cited.
In November, we released a new round of material improvements to this feature that build on the January and April releases and it now isolates potential unfavourable mentions of the cases you are consulting (among other things).
With all of this, CanLII’s noteup feature started 2020 as its usual, pretty barebones, list of citing cases (with basic sort options) and ended it as a sophisticated system that helps you quickly assess the currency, validity, and topic of the cases you retrieve through your search.
In May, we made a slight change to the interface that allows users to toggle between the regular CanLII “style” and a new dark mode where colours are inverted (light text on dark background). This may be a minor change in terms of development time, but one that shows that CanLII continues to follow (if not anticipate, at least in our field) trends in interface designs that can make a big difference for some users.
Lexum continued the development of their Lexbox product. Since Lexbox is directly embedded in CanLII, this means even more improvements for our users.
Lexum announced in March that users of Lexbox could now upload their own documents to their account so that their organization’s internal documents could be findable through a CanLII search. A new tab with these results was added to CanLII’s results page. Users can now upload a limited number of documents for free. A paid version of this system will be available to organizations who wish to further integrate their documents with CanLII and Lexbox. Ivan Mokanov, the president of Lexum, elaborated on the vision behind this in this post where he presents his thoughts on Lexbox being a “knowledge management as-a-service” solution.
A substantial upgrade to this system was further deployed in August so users can use Lexbox to extract links to the primary law that is cited in their documents and download a version of their file where hyperlinks to that primary law has been automatically added for Word documents. This system also builds on the advanced noteup features discussed above to allow users to set-up alerts for when cases cited in their internal documents are being discussed (as opposed to merely cited) in new decisions so that organizations can monitor the “freshness” of their key internal documents. Again, CanLII users have access to this feature for free for a limited number of documents. For more information, you can have a look at our post on updates to Lexbox features for CanLII users.
The CanLII staff continued to post regular columns on Slaw, and we spent a lot of time talking to our screens while presenting at several different conferences including the Canadian Association of Law Libraries, American Association of Law Libraries, Law Via the Internet (see below), and Singapore’s TechLaw.Fest.
In April, we announced the winner of the first annual Martin Felsky award, celebrating excellence in Canadian open legal commentary on the subjects of legal research and legal technology. The award went to Lee-Ann Conrod for her article titled “Smart Devices in Criminal Investigations: How Section 8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms Can Better Protect Privacy in the Search of Technology and Seizure of Information”, originally published in the University of Victoria Faculty of Law student-run and open access journal APPEAL: Review Of Current Law And Law Reform. Applications are now open for this year’s award.
In September, we co-hosted a virtual edition of the Law Via the Internet conference with AfricanLII and Lexum. My upper back is still mad at me for imposing 2 days of 10+ hours of virtual conferences and meetings on it, but it was certainly worth the (physical) pain as it allowed us to listen to eye opening talks and interact with our friends and peers from the worldwide free access to law community almost as if no pandemic was happening. The virtual event had close to 200 attendees from all continents (except Antarctica). You can read our short wrap-up here.
In June, we said goodbye to long time CanLII board member and Chair, since 2016, Dominic Jaar, and welcomed Antoine Aylwin as new board member. We are also proud that board veteran and leader extraordinaire Crystal O’Donnell has been named Chair of both the CanLII and Lexum boards.
In May, we brought on our first practicum student from the Library Technician program at Langara College, Alex Tsang, who has been helping us with research and development for our commentary collections.
As you can see, we made the most of this challenging year, and we hope that your practice (or whatever brings you to our site) will benefit from all of the above improvements!