The IRLII project has significant educational benefits as a result of our focus on student involvement in ensuring free access to law. The following material was used as a case study under University College Cork’s Graduate Attributes Program.
Our project, the Irish Legal Information Initiative, has two central strands: we are supporting students in developing legal skills that they would not have an opportunity to learn in the classroom and we are making valuable legal content freely available and accessible through social media as part of the global Free Access to Law movement.
- In what context does this initiative/practice take place?
UCC School of Law has been home the Irish Legal Information Initiative (IRLII) since 2001. IRLII is the Irish branch of the global Free Access to the Law Movement (FALM), which is an association of lawyers committed to providing free access to legal materials online, thereby ensuring universality of access to law, on a non-profit basis and free of charge, to remove any barriers of status, income or location and to promote justice, equality, inclusion and the rule of law.
Our project does not just provide this valuable legal content, however. It also provides an environment in which our team of 30 undergraduate and postgraduate students take responsibility for curating that content, having acquired and developed specific legal skills through the mentorship systems that we have established within the team. For our students, it is a very rich experience: they develop their legal skills, work as mentors and supervisors for each other, and as a team they contribute valuable information to the Irish legal community and scholars from around the world who want to gain curated access to and understanding of Irish law.
- What was the rationale for introducing this initiative/practice/project?
Adding value to the legal community: Under the initial leadership of Professor John Mee, UCC School of Law has been home to IRLII since 2001. More recently, under the new co-directorship of Professor Maria Cahill and Dr Patrick O’Callaghan and the stewardship of Luke Noonan, an IRC-funded PhD student, the project’s online presence has been re-imagined with a new, more user-friendly website and a Twitter account which allows followers to be informed of the latest decisions. Content is curated using keywords and thereafter searchable by reference to those keywords. The benefits of this accrue to everybody: from students preparing for exams to academics writing cutting-edge papers, from barristers preparing submissions to judges who want to keep track of developments across the whole legal system, from legal researchers drafting a paper on a particular aspect of law to journalists who want to give an informed analysis of recent developments.
Building skills and confidence: The second reason for developing this project in this way was to finesse the reading skills of law students and to hone their ability to precisely and succinctly articulate specific legal issues. Because the team of students takes responsibility for curating the legal content presented online, they learn to work well as a team in the co-creation of knowledge for the greater good of the entire legal community. Students consistently tell us that these skills have spill-over effects in their other modules where they find themselves able to distil important information from lengthy legal texts in a more accurate and efficient manner.
- Structure Under the academic supervision and overall leadership of co-directors Prof Maria Cahill and Dr Patrick O’Callaghan, the IRLII team is coordinated by Luke Noonan, an IRC-funded PhD candidate at the School of Law. IRLII team members work on one designated day of the week, and so, for example, the Monday team (which is comprised of more experienced researchers, junior researchers and trainee researchers) work together to read all the relevant judgments that have been handed down that day and coordinate the curation of legal materials prior to publication online. Because our team is structured according to the days of the week, students can manage their workload effectively without compromising their studies and at the same time our project provides an impressively quick turnaround time from the moment the judgment is handed down to the moment that the keywords curated by the IRLII team appear on our social media pages.
- Are there any unique elements?
Immediacy: There are many textbooks which provide curated knowledge about legal decisions but they are not published within 48 or 72 hours of the judgments having first become available online.
Free Accessibility: There are other projects that provide curated knowledge about legal decisions but one must pay prohibitive annual membership fees in order to access this information, which means that the law is not accessible to students, journalists, academics and NGOs. Our project is freely accessible to all, as we play our part in the global Free Access to Law movement.
Student-led: This project is also unique because of the way that it scaffolds students’ efforts in order to allow and empower them to shoulder this significant responsibility in such a successful way. It proves that when students are given high levels of responsibility, but also scaffolded in the assumption of that responsibility, they are capable of achieving wonderful things and contributing to public life in meaningful ways.
Bilingual component: We also ensure that the keywords for important cases are translated into the Irish language. This work is undertaken by a Law and Irish student. At the same time, this work is making a really significant contribution to the field of Irish legal language in that we are at the cutting edge of developing a glossary of key terms that have no settled translation into Irish.
- How has this initiative/project/practice helped the development of ‘graduate attributes’ in your students?This particular initiative makes a substantial contribution to the development of all graduate attributes identified by UCC under its academic strategy.
Creators, evaluators and communicators of knowledge: The student researchers work together to create keywords to describe the factual and legal issues that arise in each case or journal article that they read. This is no easy task. Students must read sometimes incredibly dense and complex legal language and then evaluate what the most appropriate keywords are in each situation. Once these keywords are identified and quality-controlled, we then communicate our findings on the website and Twitter account.
Independent and creative thinkers: This project requires independent and creative thinking because our students are often the first people in the country to read these new cases. There is nobody to tell them what the most important parts of the judgment are; there is no pre-packaged knowledge which they just regurgitate. Instead, each one engages independently with the newly-minted decisions of the superior courts and then work together to create the best keywords which present their own understanding of the important aspects of the judgment to the world.
Digitally Fluent: IRLII makes legal information freely available online through its website and Twitter account. In designing, maintaining and further improving the website and Twitter account and in finding creative ways to communicate our work, students are developing considerable digital fluency. For example, Luke Noonan’s idea of using Twitter as a means to sort cases by keywords has been commended by technical experts in UCC such as Matthias Reckmann.
Socially Responsible: Publicising the law is considered a cornerstone of the rule of law and essential for democracy. In fact, as the legal theorist Lon Fuller has pointed out, a hallmark of totalitarian regimes is that they fail to publicise their laws and citizens are left in the dark about which laws affect them. Without access to information about the law, citizens would be unable to exercise their rights in a meaningful way. In affirming their commitment to free access to the law, our students are at the same time showing that they are developing into socially responsible lawyers committed to the ideal of the rule of law.
Effective Global Citizens who recognise and challenge inequality: IRLII forms part of a larger global movement of lawyers committed to free access to the law. In their innovative work on the IRLII project, our students are ensuring that UCC School of Law will be considered one of the leading centres internationally in the free access to the law movement. Moreover, in ensuring that legal materials are available on a not-for-profit basis and free of charge, we help remove any barriers of status, income or location and promote justice, equality, inclusion and the rule of law.
- What suggestions would you give to others considering introducing a similar initiative/practice in their own department/institution?
It is important to trust the students and provide them with the opportunity to undertake a challenge with necessary supports to allow them to flourish and to be successful in contributing something important to public life in Ireland.
- Key features/strengths of the approach described in this case study
We think that the key strength of the approach that we have taken is that we have at all times tried to find the right balance between, on the one hand, putting responsibility on students’ shoulders and, on the other hand, providing them with the necessary scaffolding in order to be successful in the achievement of their goals. They are delighted to assume responsibility (when we call for new IRLII team members we receive a flood of application) because they relish a challenge and because they realise that they can stand out from their peers by doing so, and at the same time they are protected by the fact that they are part of a bigger team and can rely on each other.
Another key strength is the fact that we have secured the support from the very highest level in the legal profession. The Chief Justice came to relaunch the IRLII project and his presence was a major endorsement of our project and a strong affirmation to the students of the important work they are doing. They have the opportunity to shape how judicial decisions are understood within the legal system, and to greatly expand the accessibility of these decisions. All of this instils in the students a real sense of ownership and pride in their work.
Any student/employer/stakeholder testimonials?
IRLII isn’t only having an impact on the legal community as a whole; it is also transforming how I, as a student, view and interact with court judgments and legal articles and has remoulded the lens through which I view the legal system. The opportunity to delve deeper into cases, articles and legislation has been of much relevance to my studies; the process of navigating these resources has developed my digital fluency and the process of identifying key words has sharpened my analytical skills and refocused my legal perspective. The impact of our work here at IRLII is immense – the decisions we, as researchers, make affect how students write their assignments, how barristers make their arguments and how judges apply the law. There aren’t many places where a student can make an impact that big. What I like most about working at IRLII is its flexibility – the work fits in around your availability. The mobility of the work is also ideal – just this summer I was reading an article about EU state aid rules minutes away from where they were enacted. The exposure gained from working alongside lecturers, postgrads and other undergrads has also been invaluable, as has the ability to network at events such as our relaunch, where I got the opportunity to speak to the Chief Justice.
I joined the IRLII team this year as Trainee Researcher. I have found this work has benefited me in my understanding of law as I read cases that I would not normally read and begin to understand the legal jargon used. It shows the reality of cases in law and how they are decided. It is a great opportunity to further your legal knowledge and expertise outside of the classroom. The workload is very manageable and there is always a variety of cases and articles. I have also been lucky to receive weekly feedback to help improve my performance and it makes me feel that my work is contributing! I would definitely recommend getting involved in the programme if you have a chance to!
I am a 3rd year student of Evening BCL course and I joined IRLII project when it was relaunched by Prof Cahill and Dr O’Callaghan in May 2019. The project greatly exceeded my expectations. From the start it was very well organised, Luke’s instructions on what we had to focus on and what was expected of us were crystal clear. We had deadlines to meet. This project is of great benefit to any student of law, no matter their age and previous academic experience. The biggest benefit that I had noticed was the development of the skill of reading legal material with increased ease and level of understanding. Law has its own complex language and reading large amounts of legal text with understanding is a crucial skill that students of law need to master in order to succeed. For most of us, this was probably one of the biggest challenges and adjustments we needed to make when we started our studies. For this project, the information needs to be extracted from, more often than not, a complex legal material. I benefitted tremendously from this weekly training in reading and analysing the documents that I got assigned. I now know how to approach a judgment or an academic article, what are the parts to look for, how to extract the main, crucial ideas. Judgments or articles are different to textbooks and they can be less favoured by students to read due to their length and complexity. However, they are very important for the development of student’s critical thinking as well as the vocabulary and resources for such thinking. Joining the IRLII project was the best single step I could take towards improving these competencies. I am glad that I was given this great opportunity despite being an evening course student. I would encourage everyone with an interest in this area to take part. It does not take major amount of time per week yet the benefits of the time spent are tremendous.
Since joining the IRLII team in April 2019, I have had the unique opportunity to expand my knowledge of the law while furthering the free access to law movement. The experience as a legal researcher thus far has given me a unique vantage point to observe the nexus of legal concepts both in theory and practice. Furthermore, it has given me the confidence to exercise my independent judgment in the knowledge that I have been able to succeed without Attention Deficit Disorder or Dyslexia holding me back. I have found reviewing journal articles to be of particular interest, as I have been exposed to perspectives on contemporary issues which may not necessarily come before the courts. Moreover, the journal articles I reviewed have often shown the wider impact of policy implications both at home and abroad. My role with IRLII has proven to be one of the most rewarding activities I could have pursued while in university.
The newly-revamped IRLII website and service is wonderful. I am delighted to see this initiative revitalised as it provides a very useful service to me, as an academic, and I am sure to the wider legal community, both in Ireland and further afield. Not only is IRLII providing a platform for recent case-law of the Irish superior courts, along with archives of older cases, it now also provides access to legislation and collates information on journal articles published on Irish law in both national and international outlets. The option to search by keyword is extremely useful, and user-friendly. The tweets from the IRLII Twitter account, which include keywords indicating central aspects of specific cases, work well to draw attention to new case-law which might otherwise pass one by. This is a great endeavour for students to work on, and a great service to the legal community. I am sure that it will go from strength to strength.
The revitalised IRLII is a wonderful addition to the resources available to lawyers. It is so useful to have a ‘one-stop-shop’ for domestic law, and to be able to quickly get to the black letter law around an issue, as well as an understanding of where that issue stands in the discourse. It’s a really accessible place to send our trainees when they need to get to the bottom of something quickly, and I have no doubt that the students who are working on the project will come into practice with a sharpened understanding of the dynamism of Irish law.