Between a Rock and a Free Site

We are big fans of free and low-cost legal research alternatives here at LRP.  And, we share our enthusiasm with our students in Advanced Legal Research.

But what do you do when there are apparent discrepancies in the free sites that you steer your students to time and time again?

Here is the story:

A professor stopped by the library one day and started off by saying how great Cornell’s LII site is but was wondering about a potential error on their site.

What was the error?

In the Federal Rules of Appellate Practice, Rule 4: Appeal as of Right — When Taken, there is a section dealing with appeals in criminal cases.

In 2009, that rule was modified: defendant’s notice of appeal needs to be filed within 14 days of certain events.  The prior version of the rule required that this notice needed to be filed within 10 days.

The big change: 14 days now; before, 10 days.

As of May 13th, the version of FRAP Rule 4 on LII’s site still shows the text of the old rule.  The top of that page states that it is current through 2007.  (And, not 2009.)

I decided to look around at other important research sites and see what was online.

The Office of the Law Revision Counsel prepares and publishes the United States Code, and on their site (uscode.house.gov) they have the text of the code and the rules.  They also have the wrong version of FRAP Rule 4.  The LII folks work off of the House site, so it isn’t that surprising.  This House version has a currency date as of 1/2009 — the rule was changed in March, taking effect in December 2009.

However, another site at the US House of Representatives has it right.  On the House Judiciary Committee site, they have the correct version of the rule posted on their Procedural Documents page.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has the correct version posted on their Rules page.   I also checked a number of Federal Court websites and all had the current version.

The GPO Access site directs you to the most recent printed, official version of the US Code (2006), so this is out of date.  And, worth noting: “The information contained in the U.S. Code on GPO Access has been provided to GPO by the Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives.”   But, of course.   Also, FDSys has such a great interface and so much useful information, but it is only current through the last official supplement — missing the current version of this rule.

As to various commercial versions: Westlaw and Lexis have the correct version.  And, FastCase and CaseMaker also have the current version.

However, newcomer on the block, Bloomberg’s BLAW has a 1998 version — very out of date (and still with the 10 days instead of 14 days mistake, among others).

So, what is the right thing to say to your class?  Do we feed the research paranoia, as Bob Berring describes it, where students feel the need to double or triple check everything online on multiple sources?  Or do we frustrate the students with the caveat that sometimes even the best resources aren’t going to do the trick?

This is truly a teachable moment, but not the type of lesson I had in mind.

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7 thoughts on “Between a Rock and a Free Site

  1. Erika,

    This post is very timely, but you left out print publishers, gasp! I have advocated (and continue to advocate) for some type of digital stamp or symbol that represents a publisher meets certain criteria for authentication and accuracy when it comes to reproducing “primary law.” I remember earlier this year when West sent out a notice and supplement for one of it’s federal rules books that missed several amendments to the FRCPs. We assumed they missed it because of the way the rules amendments were formatted (dual column chart). My point is this isn’t just an issue of electronic versions but also print versions.

    I fear that quality (read: reliability) standards are getting worse.

  2. I see your point, but these sites aren’t in “error”. They specify a date and they’re correct as of that date. The information isn’t wrong, it’s just dated.

    If these sources were print, we’d know the dates they covered, and we’d know to consult the pocket parts, and we’d know the dates the pocket parts covered, too.

    There’s no lesson here that’s any different from the lessons with using books. Sources aren’t updated in real time; check the dates they cover and be aware of the dates they don’t.

    • Thanks Toby — Perhaps ‘error’ was in error and not the best choice of words to describe the problem. But it is a real problem and a source of frustration. Certainly, these sites all provide accurate dates that let the user be aware of the currency (or lack thereof). But when the websites that have this out-of-date content are the most relied upon and visited sites, perhaps they should they provide a note or disclaimer at the top of the page that there might be a newer version of these rules available from the courts or suggest consulting with the US Courts website for the most current version, etc.

      And, certainly, books have issues with currency and errors, too. But, as librarians, we strive to keep the current versions of materials accessible to our patrons.

  3. We also had issues with some of Bloombergs statutes being out of date and reported them. They corrected them and gave us an explanation that it was due to a ‘technical’ issue they had fixed. Weve been using for some time now. Here’s what we like: Great Bloomberg financial news and info – US and international and real-time. Much more legal content than we expected. Case law libraries fed and state, good unreported database – we found cases we could not located on other servis. Great alerts system. Simple and easy citation checker. Bloomberg law newsletters very popular here also. Cool workflow/km features. Flat rate pricing which is on high side but includes whole package. Here’s what we don’t like: User experience is choppy – Adobe Flash/Flex not suitable for this kind of app. High CPU, slow, hangs. Headnotes imcomplete (tho does anyone read headnotes anymore?). Asked our sales guy when non-flash version is out. Limitied treatises. Good start but a ways to go before we’ll be cancelling our West subscription.

  4. While I agree with all that has been said, we also have to think in terms of practical use. Most end users will probably not know that the rule has even been updated. They will turn to a trusted site and go with what they see without question as to its currency. This is true with both students and busy attorneys who need to grab and go. There are several teachable moments in this example to say the least! Great coverage!

  5. Pingback: Accuracy, Currency, Reliability…Oh My! « Law Firm Bottom_Line

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