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Why Was eJudgements’ SA Online Law Reports Created and What Makes it Different?

Traditional Law Reporting

Law Reporting has been around for many, many centuries.  Brief reports still exist of court cases which occurred in England in the 1200s.

In general, law reports have been commercial enterprises due to the absence of an official law reporting system. The United Kingdom did create their own official law reports, but independent commercial reports still continue.

In South Africa Juta and Lexis Nexus (formerly Butterworths) have dominated the law reporting market for nearly 200 years. In that time little has changed. The standard format is that an editor chooses each case for inclusion in the law reports. The editor then produces a headnote for the judgement (which, depending on the experience of the editor, can be a lengthy summary of the judgement, or it is a short precise of why the case is relevant to the development of the law) and case law annotated and finally a flynote is created. The flynote is a short summary of the headnote, meant for the index. The case was edited into the publisher’s house style in terms of punctuation, grammar, standard spelling, etc. The case is then added to the volume for that month and printed and bound.

This worked well until the advent of the electronic age. This changed the nature of publishing in general, but unfortunately did not change the nature of law reporting. In South Africa the two publishers who dominate the market merely used the electronic medium to print their law reports in a different way. Nothing else has changed.

Problems With The Traditional System

So, what is wrong with that, one may ask. The answer is: just about everything.

Using the traditional system it could take several months or even years for a seminal judgement to reach the knowledge of the public because it took that long for the publishers to get around to dealing with it. Either they didn’t receive the judgement or they were overloaded with cases and could not get to it earlier. Then there was the risk that the editor assigned to deal with a case may not have understood the relevance of the case and decided it was not reportable. With experienced editors (both in terms of practical, but also publishing experience) the risks were less. With less-experienced editors, the risk of missing and important case is high.

Then there is the controversial issue of ‘what is reportable?’ There are those who hold the view that if a judgement is ‘wrong’ it should not be reported. Ranged against this is the view that it is not for the editors to sit as a court of appeal to decide if a judgement is right or wrong. In fact, the view has been held by some editors that for them to decide that a judgement is wrong amounts to contempt for the court.

The Advantages of Electronic Publishing

So what is the answer: Make EVERYTHING available. It is as simple as that.

There are several advantages to electronic publishing. The two main ones are storage and searchability.

Storage is not important anymore. There is no risk of running out of bookshelf space. With online access, there is not even a disk space issue. There is absolutely no reason to restrict access to all cases, whether right or wrong, academically interesting or purely run-of-the-mill legal matters.

During the purely book-related era, that would have been a problem: You would have had what was effectively a warehouse full of case law and no way to find anything relevant. This is the same problem the internet had until powerful search engines were created.

Despite these changes in technology, the traditional publishers have clung on to the traditional format. Yes, they do have a separate list of ‘unreported’ cases in their online format, but because they are not indexed the same, they are not easy to find. And they still take a long time to make judgements available.

The South African Legal Information Institute (Saflii) has brought about a breath of fresh air, making all the cases it received available for free. However, the format used makes finding relevant cases difficult. This was a need for a system somewhere between Saflii and the traditional publishers.

Where Does eJudgements Come In?

eJudgements addresses these problems. Instead of the traditional model, we created a platform where cases which are received are posted on the site. eJudgements does not headnote cases but they are tagged according to various categories, to make them recoverable more readily. The emphasis is on the searchability of the database, with the tags improving the accuracy of the search results. Cases are also linked, so that if one is set aside on appeal this is evident.

All judgements are published in pdf format to ensure that they are not easily altered.

Unlike the trend towards specialist sets of law reports, eJudgements includes all judgement in a subscription, but allows the user to limit the search according to relevant categories (eg Criminal, Labour, Taxation, etc).