5 things to consider when using Google for Legal Research
Do you, like me, have a favourite search engine? Are you tempted to use it when undertaking legal research? It may seem like the quickest and easiest option because you are searching many sites in one place and it’s intuitive to use. However, the legal profession has had a number of concerns about their use over the past few years.
In 2008 the Law Society Gazette reported that solicitors risked breaching conduct rules and could face insurance claims if they used non-specialist online sources such as Google or Wikipedia for Legal Research. They argued that information found this way can often not be from authoritative sources and may well be inaccurate.
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For this reason, some legal librarians strongly advise against their use. However, I am aware that many solicitors ignore this advice! The convenience of using a general search engine is just too appealing! I also think there are occasions when a quick search using Google can actually be quite helpful, particularly when looking for up-to-the-minute commentary, finding a starting point for your research or when you just can’t find the information anywhere else!
It’s not an alternative to more authoritative, often paid for, research resources but can be a useful extra tool if the following considerations are made. For the purpose of this article I am referring to Google. However, the same principles can be applied to other general search engines too.
1. Not all the pages found will be authoritative.
Authoritative information comes from authors who have credibility in the subject (i.e. relevant qualifications, articles written in peer-reviewed publications) subject specific publishers and appropriate organisations (government departments or professional bodies).
Ask yourself what authoritative sources publish the sort of legal information you are looking for. Although much may be found using Google, it may well be that it is quicker and safer to go direct to their websites to run your search.
There are some excellent free sources online, and this is increasing. – E.g. BAILLI, The UK Legislation website, HMRC, EUR-LEX. Solicitors are also giving their views more readily, particularly in the form of blogs, giving speedy access to commentary on breaking news. Whilst these do not hold the weight of an academic peer-reviewed journal or update from a reputable publisher’s database, they are available a good deal quicker. Even a tool such as Twitter can be useful for very recent news, commentary, links and opinion.
There are also many databases produced by reputable publishers, e.g. LexisNexis, Westlaw, Lawtel, PLC, Jordans, etc. Information from these resources is considered trustworthy and more likely to be accepted by the courts. If you have access to those more authoritative sources you may well save yourself time and trouble by going straight to them. That is often what we are paying for!
2. Not all the pages found will be accurate.
If you are unsure about the authority of the information you have found check its accuracy by finding the same information from multiple sources. Wiki-style encyclopaedias like Wikipedia are great for allowing vast sums of knowledge to be easily collected because anyone can edit it. However, the downside is that because it is not policed by an editor or editing team not all the records are accurate. Emma Harris quoted in Jonathan Rayner’s article that she had found an article on Wikipedia that “Whoever wrote it got the rules mixed up with inheritance tax. Anyone following its advice would make a very expensive mistake.” Good articles will always cite their sources of information so use the citations to verify the information and be suspicious of those that don’t cite.
3. Pages found may relate to countries other than the UK.
For example, searching for “Trust Corporations” using Google brought up many pages with a US focus. It is possible to narrow your search using the filters to “Pages from the UK” only but if you have not used this feature these pages can be from anywhere in the world. Therefore, it is important to check where the page originated from. It’s easy to find a case or piece of legislation that you think is relevant to your case only to find out later that it is not actually from the UK and therefore, irrelevant to you. The web address is often a good clue as UK originating pages will often have “.uk” at the end.
4. Pages found may not always be updated and so can be very out-of date.
Always check the date of the material. If you can’t find a date try looking at the copyright declaration at the bottom of the page. This will also give you the name of the copyright owner which may give you a clue as to whether or not the information has been produced by a reputable source. You may think that your results are listed in date order (most recent first) but it’s not, although date does play a part in its ranking. For example, a Google search for the case Phillips v RSPB finds a page dated March 2012 higher up the results page than ones for May or June 2012. (Interestingly, the judgment on BAILLI was not found because that database does not use the abbreviation!)
5. Google does not rank its results page by date or relevance.
Google follows specific rules to rank its search results, which in turn determines the order it displays them. These rules are called PageRank which depends on the following factors:
- The frequency and location of keywords within the Web page. The more the words appear the higher up the list it appears.
- How long the Web page has existed. Older pages rank lower.
- The number of other Web pages that link to the page in question.
The result is that your results list may not have the most up-to-date page at the top or even the one from the most appropriate source. To try and get more tailored results you might want to consider using the advanced search feature. This can be found at http://www.google.com/advanced_search and enables you to use more sophisticated search strategies including phrase searching, searching within a specific website, excluded terms. Details of the search operators can be found at: http://support.google.com/websearch/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=136861&topic=1221265&ctx=topic. By using the advanced search option you can also specify the region and date and so can avoid some of the problems mentioned above.
Use general search engines such as Google with care for legal research. Consider all the resources available to you and decide if there are any that are more appropriate. If not, be aware that the information found may not be authoritative, accurate, appropriate or up-to-date and so it is important that you critically evaluate it.
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