NetJustice legal site is changing way lawyers work

Web services company Information Brokers has relied on off-the-shelf technology to build what is claimed to be one of the world's most comprehensive Web-based repositories of legal data.

NetJustice (www.netjustice.com.au) provides free access to more than 20,000 legal precedents, statutes and other documents, all categorised and cross-referenced in a database to create an online legal library.

The site has won widespread acclaim from the legal fraternity, with more than 1600 registered users worldwide and nearly 70,000 hits each month from lawyers, judges, researchers, accountants, students and casual visitors. As part of its knowledge base, it also incorporates a range of tools enabling users to add new links or information, or even to develop their own online repository for private, public or restricted access.

Greg Searle, NetJustice architect and systems engineer, built the site on Progress 8.3, using the Progress WebSpeed development tools and transaction server to speed development while ensuring maximum scalability and security.

Greg worked with his cousin, Peter Searle, a prominent barrister with more than 20 years experience, to design and populate the system, creating a valuable resource for people working and studying in the field of law.

"I designed the site to be as useful as possible. It is based on core technology that I have been developing for the past 15 years which gives the users control over the way their knowledge is organised," Greg said.

"Rather than the usual Web experience where a search query returns thousands of mostly-irrelevant responses, all the NetJustice data is classified within 50 different channels or topics to help users quickly find the material of interest to them.

"We used a flexible database architecture which made it easy to design and implement a data structure that supported our concepts of developing relationships between pieces of information and adding interpretations to turn them into a powerful knowledge tool," he said.

Because of its size, NetJustice required extensive development both from a design and content perspective. Greg invested around 1500 hours in designing and implementing the site, but says it would have taken much longer with a competitive product.

"WebSpeed allowed me to create the application quickly and cost effectively, incorporating a high degree of security while providing enormous flexibility. Its open architecture makes it an ideal development environment that works seamlessly with some of the more difficult Java interfaces we needed," Greg Searle said.

The site's innovative design has won international recognition with an award. NetJustice was named Best Legal Site on the Web in the Web Marketing Association's WebAwards for 1998.

Greg Searle says his motivation for NetJustice was twofold: to package valuable knowledge to create a service that would generate income automatically; and to address the inequity of information flowing out of Australia compared with what comes in.

"I'm very concerned that we tend to rely on overseas information sources and wanted to develop a large knowledge repository and internet gateway here in Australia that was seen by people internationally to be a significant resource," he said.

As a commercial venture, NetJustice operates at a loss, but Greg is comfortable with that for now. Use of the site is free to most visitors, but it has the capacity to function as an intranet for legal firms, which pay a small fee for this service.

"At this stage, it's a branding and relationship-building exercise. We've created a repository that is gaining widespread recognition and the number of people using the site is continually growing.

"Despite the increasing demand, NetJustice response times are consistently fast because Progress is very scalable in its approach and we've invested heavily in bandwidth and infrastructure to support the site.

"On one occasion, we peaked at 43,000 hits in a two-hour period from a hostile attack, but the system coped well with the load and performance remained high. The database runs on Windows NT and is extremely reliable, only going off-line for upgrades or design improvements," he said.

"The site continues to evolve. Our next release due soon has a new Java user interface, and incorporates additional security features and knowledge acquisition tools. "Although it began primarily with Australian legal data, Peter Searle said NetJustice has grown into a truly international resource.

"The site now includes statutes and legal precedents from the US, UK, India and various other countries and has attracted registered users from 16 different nations, with more being added every day," he said.

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