Part 3: Open Access To English Case Law (The Raw Data)

I started writing in the spring of this year about the state of open access to case law in the UK, with a particular focus on judgments given in the courts of England and Wales. 

The gist of my assessment of the state of open access to judgments via the British open law apparatus is set out here, but boils down to:

  • Innovation in the open case law space in the UK is stuck in the mud
  • BAILII is lagging behind comparable projects taking place elsewhere in the common law world: CanLII and CaseText are excellent examples of what's possible.
  • Insufficient focus, if any, is being directed to improving open access to English case law.

In a subsequent article, I explored the value in providing open and free online access to the decisions of judges. I identified four bases upon which open access can be shown to be a worthwhile endeavour: (i) the promotion of the rule of law; (ii) equality of arms, particularly for self-represented litigants; (iii) legal dispute reduction; and (iv) transparency.

In the same article, I developed a rough and ready definition of what "open access to case law":

"Open access to case law" isn't a "thing", it's a goal. The goal, at least to my mind, boils down to providing access that is free at the point of delivery to the text of every judgment given in every case by every court of record (i.e. every court with the power to give judgments that have the potential to be binding on lower and co-ordinate courts) in the jurisdiction.

My overriding concern is that a significant number of judgments do not make their way to BAILII and are only accessible to paying subscribers of subscription databases, effectively creating a "have and have nots" scenario where comprehensive access to the decisions of judges depends on the ability to pay for it. The gaps in BAILII's coverage were discussed in this article.

In this article I go deeper into exploring how big the gaps are in BAILII's coverage when compared to the coverage of judgments provided by three subscription-based research platforms: JustisOne, LexisLibrary and WestlawUK. 


The aim of the study was gather data on the coverage provided by BAILII, JustisOne, LexisLibrary and WestlawUK of judgments given in the following courts between 2007 and 2017:

  • Administrative and Divisional Court
  • Chancery Division
  • Court of Appeal (Civil Division)
  • Court of Appeal (Criminal Division)
  • Commercial Court
  • Court of Protection
  • Family Court
  • Family Division
  • Patents Court
  • Queen's Bench Division
  • Technology and Construction Court


The way in which year-on-year counts of judgments given in a given court are handled by each of the four platforms varies from platform to platform. Accordingly, the following method was devised to extract the data from each platform:


BAILII provides an interface to browse its various databases. Within each database, it is possible to isolate a court and a year. The page for a given year of a given court sets out a list of the judgments for that year.

Each judgment appears in the underlying HTML as a list element (<li> ... </li>). For example,

<li><a href="/ew/cases/EWCA/Crim/2017/17.html">Abi-Khalil &amp; Anor, R v </a><a title="Link to BAILII version" href="/ew/cases/EWCA/Crim/2017/17.html">[2017] EWCA Crim 17</a> (13 January 2017)</li>

A count of the total number of each <li> ... </li> on each pages yields the total count of judgments.

Justisone, lexislibrary & westlawuk

The three subscriber platforms were approached differently. A list of search strategies based on the neutral citation for each court was constructed.

For example, to query judgments given in the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal in 2017, the following query was constructed:

2017 ewca crim

A query for each court and each year was constructed and then submitted by the platform's "citation" search field. The total number of judgments yielded by the query was extracted by capturing the count of results from the platform's underlying HTML.

The Data

The data captured is available here in raw form. The code used to generate the visualisation in this article is available here as a Jupyter Notebook.

annual coverage by publisher

The following graph provides an overview of the annual coverage for all of the courts studied by publisher. The following points leap out of graph:

  • BAILII's coverage of judgments is far lower than that provided by the three subscription-based platforms, running on a rough average of between 2,500-3,000 judgments per year.
  • Save for a drop in LexisLibrary's favour in 2011, JustisOne consistently provides the most comprehensive coverage of judgments.
  • From 2012, Lexis has closely tracked JustisOne's coverage
  • There is a sharp and sudden proportional drop in coverage from 2014 across all four platforms.

The key takeaway from this graph is that a significant number of judgments never make it onto BAILII every year.


The following graph provides an alternative view of the same data. 


total coverage of court by publisher

This graph provides an overview of how each publisher fares in terms of coverage of the courts included in the study. By and large, there is a health degree of parity in coverage of the following courts across all four publishers:

  • Chancery Division
  • Commercial Court
  • Court of Protection
  • Family Court
  • Family Division
  • Technology and Construction Courts

However, BAILII is struggling to keep up with the levels of comprehensiveness provided by the commercial publishers in the Administrative Court, both divisions of the Court of Appeal and the Queen's Bench Division. 

The dearth in coverage of judgments from the Criminal Division on BAILII is especially startling, particularly given rise numbers of criminal defendants lacking representation at the sentencing stage. Intuitively (though I have not confirmed this), the deficit in BAILII's coverage of the Criminal Division will almost certainly be judgments following an appeal against sentence. 


(Interim) Conclusion

The data shows that BAILII is providing partial access to the overall corpus of judgments handed down in the courts studied. This, as I have previously been at pains to stress, is not down to any failing on BAILII's part. Rather, it is a symptom of how hopeless existing systems (such as they are) are at servicing BAILII with a comprehensive flow of cases to publish, particularly judgments given extempore. 

It also bears saying that the commercial publishers do not in any way obstruct BAILII from acquiring the material. A fuller discussion of the mechanics driving the problem will appear here soon.