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Features - Casecrawler: SCOUG Rating Scale Review

By T.R. Halvorson, Published on May 1, 2002

T. R. Halvorson is Deputy County Attorney in Sidney, MT, President of Synoptic Text Information Services, Inc., webmaster of LexNotes, and author of Law of the Super Searchers: the Online Secrets of Top Legal Researchers.

Previously I reviewed the LOIS Law Library,1 VersusLaw's V.,2 Jurisline.com,3 National Law Library,4 Quicklaw America,5 EastLaw (since renamed RegScanLaw),6 LawProbe,7 and CaseClerk.com 8 applying the Southern California Online User's Group Rating Scale (SCOUG Rating Scale).9  The rise of alternative online sources of American legal information continues with the introduction of Casecrawler.com.  At present, this service focuses on Florida law, but the company has a development path for additional jurisdictions.  Databases for some of the additional jurisdictions likely will be released this year.  The company has made substantial progress on case law for Georgia, Alabama, and Virginia.  When those are online, the company plans to target New York.

The Offerings

Casecrawler.com offers:

Throughout a session on Casecrawler, unless one uses the Open in New Window command for a link or frame, there is always a navigational frame at the left and a content frame at the right.  The navigational frame employs a tree structure with expandable and collapsible nodes.  As an example of framed capture of content from other web sites, the link in the left navigational frame for Florida's administrative code is to a page where the Florida Administrative Code is offered by the Division of Elections of the Florida Department of State. That page is captured into Casecrawler's right frame.  This is a controversial practice.  The degree of controversy is lower when the captured and framed content is from government websites.  Most of the content captured and framed on Casecrawler is from government web sites, but a few of the links are surprising.  For example, for U.S. Supreme Court opinions, Casecrawler captures and frames a page from FindLaw.  To Casecrawler's credit, though, it makes no alterations whatsoever to FindLaw's page that would either obscure any content or advertising or misrepresent the origin of that information.

This review is limited to the case law offered by Casecrawler itself.

The President of Casecrawler Corporation is Alan Lage.  Besides being a programmer, Lage has six years experience in sales with the Bureau of National Affairs (BNA) and two years experience in sales with the West Group.  Part of the information in this review is based on an interview of Lage, who was open, knowledgeable, and welcoming of criticism and suggestions for the service.

Coverage and Scope

Casecrawler's Florida coverage embraces all five district appellate courts and the supreme court.  Scope begins in 1894.  Case inclusion matches West's Southern Reporter.

Timeliness

The Florida courts offer to commercial legal database firms a daily email distribution.  Each distribution is essentially a collection of file attachments in Word Perfect format.  Casecrawler receives this distribution by about Noon Eastern every business day and updates its databases daily.  The 11th Circuit feeds case law about every three days.

Accuracy / Error Rate; Authenticity / Validity

Casecrawler obtained its data from a combination of three sources.  The current cases come from official government feeds.  The University of Florida had a backfile of about five years.  For historical cases before that, Casecrawler applied scanning and optical character recognition to West's Southern Reporter.  The authenticity of the data, thus, is good. During my use of the service on a trial account, I never saw a data error problem.

Accessibility / Ease of Use

Software

The service is on the web and requires no special software.  It is accessible with standard web browsers.  Casecrawler recommends Internet Explore 5.0 and above and Netscape 4.7 and above.

Trial Account and Subscribing

Casecrawler offers a trial account for ten days.  A prospective customer may sign up for a trial account online.  I ran into some glitches doing this.  The signup form includes text boxes for entry of name (first, middle initial, and last), user name, and password.  The form automatically inserts the concatenation of first name, middle initial, and last name into the user name text box.  For me, it inserted "T. R. Halvorson".  I assumed user names with periods and spaces would not work, so I edited the user name to "trhalvorson".  The password and password confirmation fields displayed exactly what I typed rather than effacing my password by displaying asterisks as is common elsewhere on the web.  Upon completing and submitting the signup form, the system displayed a page saying that I should receive an email confirming my registration within 10 to 15 minutes.  The email would state my user name and password, and then I would be able to "download our software and/or perform legal research on our site."  I wondered whether special software is necessary to search Casecrawler.  I wondered why I needed email to tell me my user name and password when the form let me select them and the submission did not trigger a response that there was any problem with either.

By the next day no email had arrived.  I tried signing up again, but the signup failed because, a message said, my user name and password already were in use.  I thought, "Great, I'll log in."  My attempt to log in using "trhalvorson" as my user name failed.  No such user name.  So I telephoned the number on Casecrawler's front page, 813-877-0400, and reached Janus Services Inc. in Tampa, Florida.  The number is a typo.  The correct number is 813-866-0400.  At that number I got a recording and left a message.  I tried the number for the administrative contact listed in WHOIS at Network Solutions.  A woman answered with a greeting that did not sound like it had anything to do with Casecrawler, but when I mentioned the purpose of my call, she immediately recognized what I needed.  She was knowledgeable and helpful concerning Casecrawler, took necessary information, and said she would make sure someone called me back that day.  That afternoon, a woman from Casecrawler did call me and it turned out that the system signed me up with the user name "T. R. Halvorson" despite how I had edited the user name field.  So, there are glitches with the signup procedure and glitches with contacting the company at times, but once you do reach a human being on the telephone, they are knowledgeable, they do follow through, and they do solve your problem.

Hours of Availability

The service is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  I searched the service at widely varying hours on all days of the week and found its server capacity adequate to respond promptly at all times.

Connecting; Logging In

Connecting to the service is simple.  The page a searcher probably would want to bookmark for searching is the current subscriber login page.  Besides calling for entry of user name and password, that page displays a familiar golden key that I have seen when logging in to Lotus Notes databases.  Clicking on the Login command button takes the user directly to the Basic Search page.

Interface Design

From this point forward in any Casecrawler session, the system splits the screen into a navigational frame at the left and a content frame at the right.  The navigational frame displays the links tree and the hit list for the current search.  One switches between the links tree and the hit list by clicking tabs at the top of the left frame.  The content frame displays search forms and hit documents.

Choosing a Database

At the time of this review, Casecrawler offered three databases:  Florida appellate cases, Florida 2001 statutes, and 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.  Thus there is no need yet for a database directory or navigation to a database.  The basic search form allows a searcher to select a database by simply clicking one of three option buttons.  The default is Florida appellate cases.

Search Modes

Casecrawler offers four search modes.  The first is QuickCite (yikes! don't they know that's the name of Quicklaw's citator?) that allows case retrieval by West citation.

The Basic Search mode form provides a text box for entry of a query statement, option buttons for selection of database, and option buttons for choosing five, ten, or fifteen words of context to show in the hit list for keyword searching.

Despite the options buttons for "All words" and "Any word" above the query statement text box, the Basic Search form allows one to use any Boolean query statement supported by the query processor of the search engine, as discussed below.

Casecrawler provides an Advanced Search mode.  The prime feature of this form is its provision of interface elements for field searching (or what Lexis calls segment searching).  One may search by case name, docket number, date range, court, judge, counsel, parties, author, and whether the outcome of the appeal affirmed, reversed, or remanded a case.

The service also provides an Expert Search mode.  This mode allows a searcher to set the maximum number of hits to 10, 50, 100, 250, or All.  It allows the searcher to elect to hit on word variants such as plurals and to elect to use fuzzy searching.  It also provides four sorting options:  relevance, last modified, first modified, and keep current order.

The caption for the Expert Search mode says, "search this view."  It is not clear what that means.  One may conduct the first search of a session or a new search in this mode, so it is not limited to searching within an existing hit set (which sometimes is called a "view" in some people's database terminology).  Expert Search mode is essentially what experienced Westlaw and Lexis searchers would call command mode.  It supports every query feature of the system including field searching.  The trouble is, the names of the fields are not documented.  You can guess what some of them are, though.  For example, the case name field is called "casename."  One could develop a cheat sheet by trial and error, but we shouldn't have to.

Boolean and Other Operators

Casecrawler uses Lotus Notes.  Casecrawler tailored the software for its application to legal searching.  The President of Casecrawler Corporation, Alan Lage, is a Certified Lotus Developer and a Certified Lotus Administrator.  The company has additional personnel qualified as Certified Lotus Specialists.  As implemented by Casecrawler, the Lotus Notes query processor supports standard Boolean operators and syntax including AND, OR, NOT, adjacency, and proximity (sentence and paragraph). 

Plurals; Equivalencies

In Advanced Search and Expert Search mode, Casecrawler supports fuzzy searching that hits on plurals, British spellings, other alternative spellings, and misspellings.

Output

Hit List

The hit list appears in a relatively narrow left frame and never goes out of view while displaying documents.  This is important since the coding of the screens disables right-clicking the links for hit documents to open them in new windows.  One cannot use the hit list and new windows in a hub-an-spoke fashion as can be done, for example, on Lexis.  On the other hand, cases come across the wire faster than on Lexis making the hub-and-spoke approach less necessary on Casecrawler.

Order of Hit List; Ranking

Casecrawler displays the hit list in relevancy ranked order.  The ranking is based on a straight forward weighting of term occurrence.  The search engine supports a Termweight operator that lets a searcher assign more or less weight to the keywords in a query.

General Appearance of Documents

The general appearance of documents is good.  The documents print well from the screen and there is an option to deliver them to one's email account.  Email delivery is in single column, but in the browser a simple click on a column formatting command button quickly displays opinions in dual column format.

Context of Search Terms

Casecrawler highlights search terms in yellow to make review of key words in context easier and faster.

Citations; Pagination; Paragraph Numbers

The opinion documents have West citations up to 1998.  The company is working to bring them completely up to date.  There is no internal pagination by West or any other page numbers and no current plan to introduce them.  There are no vendor-neutral pinpoint paragraph numbers.

Printing

Documents printed in any of three modes (from single-column onscreen display, email single column format, and dual-column onscreen display) are presentable to courts, clients, and adversaries.  To print only the document and not the navigational frame or other screen elements, choose the "Only the selected frame" or equivalent option in the print dialog.  Printing in this fashion while viewing a case in dual column format prints the case neatly in dual columns.  By all three methods, the highlighting of search terms disappears in printed output.  This is welcome to shield thought process and work product.

Saving Documents to Local Storage

From email attachments, documents may be saved easily to local storage.  They also may be saved from the onscreen display.  To avoid saving all the frames and graphics, first right click in the document frame to bring up the context popup menu and then choose Open Frame in New Window.

Checkmate Case Citator

An in-depth review of the case citator is beyond the scope of this review.  That would be a topic for a whole article.  Possibly the inner workings of Checkmate would generate a debate about whether it is a true citator as has happened with Loislaw's GlobalCite.10  I tried it on a number of cases and it always yielded the same number of cases and exactly the same cases as Shepard's did on Lexis, but my sampling was too limited to draw general conclusions.

CheckMate's output includes context from the citing cases that can help speed the process of evaluating the results.  The output suggests that Checkmate may work by programmatic citation searching and that it is not a true citator in the sense that Shepard's is.  As citation searching goes, it is a nifty tool, but I would want to know its inner workings before I could conclude that it would perform a citation search better than a searcher might herself.

Consistency

The screen layout consistently includes a navigational left frame, a right document frame, and a top row of command buttons.  When a hit list is displayed in the left frame, the main menu still is not far away and in the same location, accessible by clicking a tab at the top of the frame.

Integration

Citations to cases that reside in Casecrawler's databases are uniformly hyper linked.

Documentation

Casecrawler is weak on documentation.  The only documentation at present is a single file explaining the operators and syntax for queries with examples.  There is no user's guide, tutorial, FAQ, demo, or database contents.  The company is aware of this deficiency and is working on additional materials.

Customer Support and Training

Casecrawler offers customer support by email and telephone.  I found the company responsive via both channels. The people who responded were competent, pleasant, and handled my inquires well.

Value-to-Cost Ratio

Casecrawler uses a flat rate pricing model.  It offers the Florida cases and statutes for $40.00 per month and the 11th Circuit cases for $20.00 per month.  To compare this with the pricing of the other alternative online legal information services and the special pricing Westlaw and Lexis offer for defined content packages for smaller firms, see Survey of Online Legal Information Alternatives for Small Law Firms and Public Law Libraries, LLRX.com, November 1, 2001.  Casecrawler's prices are in line with National Law Library whose backfile is shallower, less expensive than Loislaw and Quicklaw America, but more expensive than VersusLaw and the services that derive their case law data from VersusLaw.  VersusLaw's Florida cases scope begins in 1950 in contrast to Casecrawler's 1894, but VersusLaw also provides varying scope covering all 50 states.

Footnotes

1 T. R. Halvorson, "The LOIS Law Library: A View through the Southern California Online Users Group Rating Scale Lenses," LLRX.com™, March 1, 1999.   <back to text>

2 T. R. Halvorson "VersusLaw's V.: A View through the Southern California Online Users Group Rating Scale Lenses," LLRX.com™, March 15, 1999.   <back to text>

3 T. R. Halvorson, "Jurisline.com: What You See ... What You Don't See," LLRX.com™, January 17, 2000.   <back to text>

4 T. R. Halvorson, National Law Library: A View through the Southern California Online Users Group Rating Scale Lenses, LLRX.com™, May 1, 2000.   <back to text>

5 T. R. Halvorson, Quicklaw America: A View through the Southern California Online Users Group Rating Scale Lenses, LLRX.com™, October 2, 2000.   <back to text>

6 T. R. Halvorson, EastLaw: A View through the Southern California Online Users Group Rating Scale Lenses, LLRX.com™, January 2, 2001.   <back to text>

7 T. R. Halvorson, LawProbe:  SCOUG Rating Scale Review in Brief, LLRX.com™, January 2, 2001.    <back to text>

8 T. R. Halvorson, CaseClerk.com:  SCOUG Rating Scale Review, LLRX.com™, March 1, 2002.    <back to text>

9 Reva Basch, "Measuring the Quality of the Data: Report on the Fourth Annual SCOUG Retreat," Database Searcher, vol. 6, no. 8, October 1990, pp. 18-24.  The SCOUG Rating Scale is the earliest full-orbed view of quality and value of information in the electronic age that I can find.  It came out of the 1990 annual retreat of the innovative Southern California Online Users Group (SCOUG).  Despite its pre-web genesis, the SCOUG Rating Scale has enduring value today.  There are a number of SCOUG-inspired rating systems being applied to web services.  That's why I previously proposed that searchers "use the Web to conduct and publicize SCOUG-inspired quality evaluations of selected Web resources."  T. R. Halvorson, "Searcher Responsibility for Quality in the Web World," Searcher, vol. 6 no. 9, October 1998, pp. 12-20.     <back to text>

10 See Tobe Liebert, GlobalCite: Is it a Third Citator?LLRX.com™, March 1, 2001.     <back to text>