Lessons for laggards from learned legions’ laudable law linking

Through their “likes”, “shares” and “tweets”, the actions of our “friends”, “links” and “tweeps” regularly guide us to new stories, music, restaurants and countless other destinations.  It turns out these actions also give us a better understanding the legal framework that governs us.  It also turns out, that Twitter users are seemingly more effective at bringing law to the people than the mass media (more on that later).

You link, I click

You’ve probably seen this (or maybe you’ve done it).  Someone you are following includes a link in their post to a court case or piece of legislation in order to back up a point made or a comment offered.  While it may be a stretch to suggest that all followers are then better informed and more engaged citizens as a result of reading a primary legal source, it’s certainly no stretch to say because of social media that the possibility of broader understanding of the law exists like never before.  These laudable law links come from a learned legion – largely lawyers and other legal professionals.   

Links can be to court, government, commercial or other websites, but given the data at my fingertips, I will focus this article on links to CanLII

Using one of the many available third party apps that skim the Twitter fire hose, I spent a little time gauging the frequency with which Twitter users link to CanLII cases in their tweets.  I then dug in to the site analytics to see the volume of page views generated by a click through from a Twitter link.  In July 2011, the ratio of page views to Twitter links was greater than 2 to 1.  That’s not to suggest that every Twitter link resulted in 2 people clicking through to read the court case or statute as experiences vary depending on the subject matter of the tweet (i.e., newsworthy vs. esoteric) and the size and engagement of the Twitterer’s follower base.

I’m not sure what passes for an average number of clicks on tweets with links, but it strikes me that the appetite for legal information must be pretty high to sustain a two to one ratio.  Sure this may not be a LOLcat level of click through traffic, but impressive nonetheless.  These numbers are especially interesting in light of the annual growth CanLII is seeing in page views originating from Twitter links:

 

  The actual numbers are CanLII proprietary (sorry!), but I will put them in perspective in discussing the linking laggards.   

 More words, less links?

After giving up 15-20 characters to provide a law link, and a few more for their handle, hat tips or RTs, Twitter users still manage to put their link in context with the 100 or so characters that remain.  In contrast, the major news websites will publish a 700-1000 word column that addresses or references a legal issue and will often not link to a source of primary law (whether court, government or other).                   

Each of the following sites drives traffic to CanLII cases, statutes and regulations, but none to the level driven by Twitter links:

www.cbc.ca

www.nationalpost.com

www.globeandmail.com

www.thestar.ca

www.ctv.ca

www.financialpost.com

 One of these sites drives appreciably more traffic to CanLII (about 3x the average of the others), but the resulting page views are still well below those driven by the twittering masses.

As there is no equivalent to the Twitter fire hose that would allow us to measure the actual number of links to CanLII documents placed on these sites, we are unable to determine whether the lower traffic is a function of fewer click throughs or fewer links – but given the substantial readership of each and the activity levels of their own comment pages, I am inclined to assume there are simply fewer links. 

Learning law

Should it matter that the news sites do not consistently link to primary legal materials even when salient to the context of their articles?  I suppose not.  After all they are under no obligation to facilitate public legal education.  But it vexes me a little that such an easy opportunity to make legal information more accessible is not taken up with more gusto, particularly since the Twitter experience demonstrates a public appetite to access source material.

The paucity of legal links in major media websites is actually a little surprising given the common presence of contextual information that generally accompanies online news items.  Pick any story on any Canadian news media website and you will find hyperlinks.  Whether embedded within the text or appearing alongside the column, the author or editor provides the reader with links to related material to further their understanding of the story and the context in which it plays out.  The reader, I humbly suggest, would also appreciate the chance to better understand the legal issues in a given article if presented links to court cases and other primary legal information.      

Finally, if any more proof were needed to support the theory of a public interest in learning law through links found on popular networks or websites, consider this factoid:  CanLII page views generated by links from over 1000 Wikipedia articles are over six times greater than those coming from Twitter.

Now that legions have led, will the laggards learn the lesson?

Why we read case law

I suggest there are three main reasons why legal professionals and the general public alike read case law, and I offer 2011’s three most read CanLII cases in support of my suggestion.

When it comes to judicial decisions, the legal profession measures influence by how many times a case has been cited by other courts.  By that measure, the influence of Dunsmuir v. New Brunswick, 2008 SCC 9, is incontrovertible.  It has been cited by over 4400 other cases contained within CanLII’s case collections – the most of any case.  Over the first 7 months of 2011, CanLII users accessed Dunsmuir 5237 times, making it the third most consulted case of the year to date.

What about cases that are widely read and debated but rarely if ever cited by other courts?  The second most consulted case was accessed 5249 times during the same period, but has thus far only been cited twice by other courts. The case, Bedford v. Canada, 2010 ONSC 4264, which is now working its way through the appeal process, found Criminal Code provisions addressing facets of prostitution to be in conflict with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  The high level of interest has a lot to do with its anticipated impact on the legal and public landscape.

Sometimes cases gain notoriety for elements having nothing to do with establishing precedent or influencing public policy.  Such is the situation surrounding 2011’s most accessed case.  This case has an astonishing consultation total of 16 898 (actually, 26 728, if we include December 2010, which we might as well in light of the fact the decision was only published on November 29, 2010).  If the consultations were spread evenly from publication to the end of July, the case would have been continuously and repeatedly accessed every 13 minutes for 8 months – with no breaks for evenings, week-ends, or holidays.

What made Bruni v. Bruni, 2010 ONSC 6568, such a popular read?  Quite simply, style and storytelling, the appropriateness of which (in general) was the subject of a recent Toronto Star article on judicial writing.

These three cases are typical of the primary reasons why we read case law: 1) to know and reference the law when seeking to advance our interest; 2) to understand and participate in public policy debates; and 3) because case law can be an unparalleled source of entertainment.  There’s a reason, after all, that lawyers and legal matters figure so prominently in literature, pop culture and the arts in general.