ONE OF AUSTRALIA’S MOST POPULAR LEGAL RESEARCH SITES FACES BEING DRASTICALLY COMPROMISED DUE TO A SUDDEN DROP IN FUNDING. BUT LAW FIRMS AND INDIVIDUALS ALIKE ARE BOLSTERING SUPPORT FOR THE FREE SERVICE. KATE GIBBS REPORTS
Australia’s top firms clock up between a quarter of a million and half a million hits on the Australasian Legal Information Institute (AustLII) site every year, and students can barely put together an assignment for their torts or criminal law subjects without referring to it. But the free access legal search site is now under threat due to a drastic drop in funding.
Law firm Baker & McKenzie last week dedicated $35,000 to AustLII, which it is to receive over three years. The firm’s Sydney managing partner Mark Chapple told Lawyers Weekly the firm believes AustLII “plays an important part in making law and justice available to the community”, hence the generous contribution. Without financial support such as that received by the firm, AustLII will have to look at considerably reducing the free services it currently provides.
In March this year, AustLII received an average of 637,000 hits per day on its site. According to independent ratings agency Hitwise, it received about three times the combined accesses of all commercial providers of legal research. According to AustLII’s own research, members of the Bar accounted for 200,000 hits on the site in March this year, while larger law firm users each accounted for 30,000 hits per month.
But despite the popularity of the site, funding has reached a critical phase and AustLII is now calling to all users to help it replenish its funds.
The funding gap has occurred because the service has lost the benefit of research infrastructure grants. AustLII had been very successful in obtaining the Australian Government’s Australian Research Council grants for the past seven years, AustLII external relations officer David Vaile told Lawyers Weekly. But these research infrastructure grants were only meant to be one-off developments, he said.
“They weren’t a long-term source of general operating funding. It was a substantial amount of AustLII’s funding and AustLII was extremely successful in getting a series of this funding for a number of years. But, in a sense, it wasn’t really much of a surprise that this didn’t go on forever. It was project and development funding rather than recurrent,” said Vaile.
Grants from this academic fund, combined with funding for the development of its services from the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW and the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), have averaged $650,000. This has accounted for more than 50 per cent of the company’s annual budget, according to its own records.
Without this funding, which had fallen through by December last year, AustLII has been forced to reduce its staff by one-third, from 10 to 6.5 people. It still has some staff at the University of New South Wales and UTS, whose salaries are paid by the universities.
At the same time, all the Australian funding it does receive from the various sectors, firms and individuals is just used for the Australian material on the site, but the “hiccup, as it is being called”, said Vaile, has meant that some local and international projects will be compromised.
In its plea to various stakeholders, AustLII has received varying responses. While Baker & McKenzie has dedicated $35,000 over three years as a minimum, and the Victorian Bar Council has promised $7500 as a starting contribution, other organisations have been less forthcoming.
The New South Wales Bar Council has declined to provide any funding assistance, as has the NSW Law Society, at least until 2008. According to AustLII, the NSW Bar Council said on 24 April this year that it “does not believe it appropriate to provide the assistance you have sought”. The Law Society said its “capacity to accommodate unforseen expenditure is extremely limited” for 2006—07, and “the 2007—08 budget for the Law Society is finalised,” AustLII said.
But NSW Bar Association president Michael Slattery told the Association’s members early this week that he personally supported AustLII, donating his own money and believing in the importance of its work. He acknowledged, however, that NSW barristers should not be compulsorily levied for the maintenance of AustLII databases.
“However, I do encourage members to make individual donations to AustLII to help balance its budget in 2007. AustLII presently needs to raise an additional $400,000 to meet its shortfall in sponsorship funding … The New South Wales Bar is a large user of AustLII’s services, so donations by individual barristers are a proper response to a free service which benefits us all greatly,” he said.
The Victorian Bar is a new contributor, said AustLII’s Vaile, adding that the response from Victoria had been the most positive of all the states.
However, according to Hitwise, NSW makes up 36 per cent of AustLII-users nationally, compared to Victoria’s 25 per cent and Queensland’s 19 per cent. South Australia makes up just 9 per cent; Western Australia represents 7 per cent and the ACT and Tasmania account for 2 per cent each. AustLII has stated that it thinks it would be reasonable to expect funding from each state to reflect this usage pattern.
Some individuals from within the profession have made contributions, including Julian Burnside QC, who donated $1000. Barrister Maryanne Loughnan donated $500, as did lawyer Gary Testro and Michael Joseph SC.
Baker & McKenzie’s managing partner, Chapple, was also keen to get the word out that AustLII is in need of financial support, telling Lawyers Weekly that he would do “anything I can do to communicate AustLII’s plight and tempt other people into joining a bit of a rescue mission”.
Chapple said that when he was head of disputes and insolvency at Bakers he personally used to use AustLII, and in preference to the commercial online providers of legal research. But his reasoning behind the considerable donation to AustLII came from an awareness of the value it adds to the legal community in having a free service.
“Leaving aside [AustLII’s value to] law firms, courts, community law centres, universities and students, [AustLII is] obviously a very important part, we think, in making law and justice available to the community.”
But Baker & McKenzie is a new financial supporter of AustLII, being previously unaware of how it was funded. Chapple said the firm had not been familiar with its funding model. “I probably incorrectly assumed it was fully government funded,” he said. He said he was surprised that of the 17 law societies and bar associations across Australia, only a couple make contributions. “There are not any major accounting firms or insurance companies [on the list of financial supporters] and yet they would be significant users of the service.”
As well as providing the $35,000 as a minimum commitment, which makes the firm the largest law firm sponsor, the firm has committed to help AustLII develop a more sustainable sponsorship model.
Because AustLII currently gets its material free from the government, it can’t charge people to use the site. For similar reasons an advertising model is not possible. But Chapple plans to help the company developed “ramped up sponsorship models” with differing degrees of sponsorship and some modest acknowledgements on the website.
The firm has also told AustLII that, assuming it can help them develop a more sustainable sponsorship model, it will look to commit additional funding. Chapple also helped AustLII prepare a flyer to put on the chairs of all attendees at the Legal Reform Summit put on by the Australian Financial Review last week. He has also taken up the challenge to pursue other sponsorship from major law firms and accounting firms, and “set out a challenge to match what we have done”.
Shadow Attorney-General Joseph Ludwig has also expressed disappointment in the lack of support for AustLII as it faces this funding crisis. He said AustLII was “without a doubt the premier legal source by which the average person may access comprehensive legal information regardless of jurisdictions” and that it was a disappointment to learn of the Australian Research Council’s decision not to fund the general expansion of the company.
He said he intends to speak with AustLII and other stakeholders to determine what a Federal Labor Government could do to help secure its future. “The ability to store, search, match and retrieve data is revolutionising law and justice — in everything from comparing fingerprints to searching for statute and precedent,” said Ludwig.
“For the first time in history we have within our grasp an ability to deliver law within reach of the average citizen. We are witnessing democratisation of the law.
Some of Australia’s national firms have made contributions, and Vaile noted that smaller firms have made some generous commitments. Blake Dawson Waldron has provided $10,000 for this year’s budget, as has Freehills and Mallesons Stephen Jaques. Florin Burhala & Associates Lawyers has contributed $6000 this year, while Allens Arthur Robinson, Minter Ellison, Middletons Lawyers and Norton Gledhill Commercial Lawyers have each given $5000 to AustLII this year.
AustLII’s Vaile noted that because the purpose of the service is to make primary legal material available free to the end user, “anyone with an interest in social justice or access to the law can see that there are broad benefits”.
“Not only for the disadvantaged and ordinary people having access to the law, but also less well endowed law firms, community legal centres or Legal Aid are able to provide better quality advice because of AustLII,” said Vaile.
He added that some “hard-nosed” commercial operators are contributing generously for purely business reasons, as well as those firms doing so as a form of professional responsibility. “It is the first time anybody has had to think about AustLII not being there. It has sort of focused people’s minds on it. They think of the X-hundred staff and they realise it makes more sense to make a contribution and see that it goes ahead.”
Lawyers Weekly is published by LexisNexis, a market competitor to AustLII.