Good law libraries are an important public benefit, and not just a private convenience for lawyers.
The existence of a well-resourced law library freely available to lawyers means that those lawyers have access to the materials which will assist their clients, regardless of the client’s, or the lawyer’s, ability to pay. Just as a cat may look at a king or queen, a good law library means the most junior of barristers or solicitors can access the same resources available to a QC or a senior City partner, or indeed available to the judge before whom the lawyer will argue their point.
Law libraries are a great levellers within the unequal profession of law; the great chambers of barristers or the top law firms of solicitors may well have their own private libraries; but they cannot have privileged access to legal information when there are well-resourced law libraries freely available to lawyers.
So what is a good law library?
To a limited extent this is a subjective question, and one’s preferences for a law library, or indeed any library, will be as personal as George Orwell’s suggested attributes of a perfect public house.
But there are certain qualities which are essential.
If you are asked why you favour a particular law library, it would seem natural to put the books first – and by books I mean physical tomes on physical shelves. Books are important to a practicing litigator, and more important than many lay people will realise.
The stuff of litigation is a combination of knowledge about procedure (the rules about how cases should be dealt with), evidence (what information about a case can, and cannot, be put before a court), and the substantive law – the actual “black-letter law” which the court should apply to the case.
Every litigated case is a balance of these three inter-related subjects. A claim is often won or lost on a procedural point or what evidence is deemed relevant or admissible. But in every case the parameters of what a party can achieve, or be exposed to losing, are set by the black-letter law.
All three of these subjects are complex in their own right: there are detailed thick volumes on the rules of procedure and evidence, as well as on the law itself. A litigator needs to have detailed guides to all three to even begin to advise on a point.
And that is only the start: there is rarely a point which requires looking at just one book. Samuel Johnson said a person can turn over half a library to make one book; and to get to the bottom of a legal point is a similar exercise.
One will go the standard procedural guides, to a standard textbook, to a legal encyclopedia, to indexes of cases and statutes, to a case report, and then to another case report, to a volume of statutes, to a specialised text book, to a legal dictionary, to an article in a journal, back to another case report, and to a collection of forms and precedents; and then finally one will then have got to the bottom of a legal point and how to present it.
In the process, the lawyer will have darted around a library, in a number of different directions, going zigzag from collection to collection.
So a good law library needs to have certain qualities: it needs books, but it also needs space both to walk around (and not disturb others) and to put all the books out on the desk in front of you as you work. There also needs to be sufficient space so as to allow one to work appropriately and privately on discreet and confidential matters.
And there needs to be light (so that one can read any book as well standing at a shelf than at a desk) and there needs to be quiet (because the whole intellectual exercise of researching and mastering a legal point requires considerable concentration, away from clicks of other people’s typing).
Finally, a good law library needs law librarians. There is only so much even the most experienced lawyer can know about legal materials and where to find them. An experienced law librarian will not only be familiar with the queries all lawyers tend ot have (and so can use that experience to save the time of everyone) but will invariably be able to assist in solving the most esoteric of research problems. A good law librarian is not only responsive; he or she will anticipate the changing needs of lawyers and ensure new materials (physical and electronic) are readily available. And it is a simple truth that one cannot have good law librarians without having good law libraries for them to work in; it is not a “transferable skill” which can be somehow developed just on a training course.
A good law library is a masterpiece of design and utility; it not only stores the books but allows lawyers – practitioners and students – to use the books well.
“Ah,” some will contest, “it is all electronic now, you don’t need actual books”.
And some will nod-along with this. But ths contention is nonetheless flawed for three reasons.
First, and most obviously, there is a limit to what one can look at on any screen.
An electronic book is useful when there is only one thing you are looking for and you know where to find it – say a particular section of an Act, or a particular paragraph of a textbook or procedural guide. But proper legal research – going through the tables of cases and statutes and indexes, the cross-referring of citation against substance, the tracing of a point from case to case – is impossible on a VDU. There is only so much which can be done by someone with a click-the-link and copy-and-paste mentality.
Second, the providers of electronic databases (primarily Westlaw and Lexis) are rarely the proprietary owners of the materials they carry.
The providers are instead mere licensees of third party owners of legal knowledge – who can, of course, withdraw the content at any time. There are numerous examples of databases dropping access to certain texts: ask anyone who now wants to get online access to Lloyd’s Law Reports and Family Law Reports. To rely on electronic databases is to make the lawyer the hostage of the whims of a handful of highly expensive vendors and their licensors.
Third, there is the question of coverage: no electronic database is going to carry the greater number of legal texts – especially old editions – that can be stocked by a law library.
This is true not only in respect of materials on the laws of England and Wales. When one factors in materials – and not just simple case reports – about other common law jurisdictions (which can be of persuasive weight in English courts) as well as in respect of the European Union and the European Convention on Human Rights (which do have direct impact on domestic cases) – no database is going to be enough.
And so we come to the misconceived and dreadful plans for the library of Inner Temple.
The library of the Inner Temple is as good a law library as it is possible for a law library to be.
Here are some pictures.
It is an extraordinary and wonderful place for any lawyer, from a student to a QC, to work.
There is no better place in England to research a legal point.
By way of background, the Inner Temple is one of the four “Inns of Court”. Each of these maintain a law library, not at the taxpayers’ expense, for barristers. (Solicitors have access to the Law Society library.) Each of the Inns’ law libraries provide general materials and take a share in the burden of specialised collections (so, for example, Inner Temple provide legal materials on topics such as forensic science or mental health, whilst another Inn covers housing law). Between the four Inns, any barrister has free access to whatever legal material they need.
Inner Temple library was specially built to be a library to work in. Care was put into not only shelving and desk space but also acoustics, light and use of space. Just as a symphony hall can be built to maximise the sound of an orchestra, a library can be constructed for the benefit of those using it.
But some have a different idea.
They want to rip the library apart so as to make space for “education and training” and an “international arbitration centre”.
The proposals are full of jargon: the development will be “state-of-the-art” and (inevitably) “high-tech”. One half expects those pushing the plans to talk with a straight face about the white heat of modern technology.
In fact, the proposal is for an act of vandalism in management speak. To particularise the act of vandalism:
– the library’s entire upper floor and gallery will be converted into meeting rooms, offices and an auditorium for education and training;
– half of the Library’s main floor will be lost to storage, equipment, lifts and stairs to a new fourth floor extension
– 58% of the floor space will be lost
– 50% of reader spaces will be lost (leaving only 49 reader places)
– 25,000 books from the main part of the Library and in every day use will be displaced.
And to make it utterly ridiculous: the Library will be closed entirely for a year and a half for these works to be carried out.
It is quite difficult to think of anything less thought-through.
It is also unnecessary: the Inn’s “education and training department” (clearly empire building, as such departments tend to do) has access to many other rooms and facilities in the Inn and elsewhere. The envisaged “international arbitration centre” has all the markings of another white elephant.
As one can imagine, the proposals have not been popular.
But what is striking is the depth and detail of the opposition.
Last Monday, the chair of the Criminal Bar Association linked to an extraordinary document. You should click into it to: it is here. It contains the sensible and reasoned response of the Inn’s library committee to the proposal; but is also includes something else.
Annexed to the report are letters and emails from all sorts of library users – from Lord Sumption (the Supreme Court justice) and Sir Stephen Sedley (the greatest English appeals judge of modern times) to hard-pressed family or criminal junior barristers and heavily indebted law students. Each correspondent is worth reading; the case against the destruction of the library is well-made, again and again. And, amusingly, the half-baked proposals for “state-of-the-art” and “high-tech” facilities are scathingly taken apart.
But will this be enough? Unfortunately, it may not be. The decision will be made by the “Benchers” of the Inn on 21 October 2015.
The supporters of the proposals want a quick decision and to start “development” promptly because they want to head off any application to give the library “listed” status.
And there is a real possibility the supporters of the proposals will get their way.
So why does this matter to anyone else?
I have an interest: I work in the Temple and use the Inner Temple library, and that is why I know it is outstanding for what it does.
And it, of course, is important to other lawyers who use it.
But there is a more general interest, a crucial one.
A good law library, as I said at the head of this post, is a Public Benefit. It provides a lawyer – any lawyer – with the same access to the very same legal resources as his or her opponents, however well-resourced or expensive those lawyers are.
And in every lawyer’s case there is a client; and so the access a lawyer has to first-rate legal resources benefits the client. And the public benefit too: cases which are properly argued are more likely to be properly decided, and the output of our courts has an effect on society generally.
There are ways the libraries of the Inns of Court could be improved: not least, they should be more easily available to litigation solicitors and solicitor-advocates (and to the legal officers of NGOs and those who work at legal advice centres) as well as barristers. (I use the Inns’ libraries by virtue of having once been called to the Bar even though I practice as solicitor.)
Of course, one should be beware of the natural conservatism of any profession. And law can be the most conservative of professions: only lawyers would wear horsehair wigs and still expect to be taken seriously.
The case for good law libraries is not based, however, on conservatism, or nostalgia, or sentimentality. It is also not based on aesthetics, though a library can be a very beautiful thing.
The case for good law libraries is instead based squarely on utility: the benefit of all lawyers and their clients, and society generally.
And that is why good law libraries, such as Inner Temple library, should be defended.
[Add: the press release of the Inner Temple on the development is here.]
Please note these are my personal views and not those of any entity I am connected with.
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