Monday, December 2, 2013

Mobile Apps for Legal Research #7: Fastcase

Fastcase is an online platform for searching U.S. case law and statutes. The Fastcase app (iOS, Android) brings a pared-down version of Fastcase to mobile devices. The standout characteristic of the Fastcase app is that it is free to use--no Fastcase subscription required. Anyone can download the app and search an impressive collection of primary U.S. law.

The app contains a comprehensive collection of state and federal appellate level opinions, as well as a large collection of federal district court orders. It also has statute sets for the U.S., all fifty states, and the District of Columbia. The Fastcase app provides the most recent statute set for each jurisdiction and one or more superseded sets. You can search or browse the statutes. The browsable superseded statute sets make checking on the law in effect at a particular time in the past as simple as looking up the current statutes.

The Fastcase app offers basic search capabilities. It supports Boolean searching, wildcards, and proximity operators (though initially the proximity operators did not seem to work for me). But it  does not offer any of the advanced data visualization options present in Fastcase itself.

The app defaults to a relevancy ranking for its search results. The relevancy ranking looks primarily at the occurrences of the search terms in each document, and ranks the documents based on the frequency and location of the terms. The app is aware of how each document is cited in the database, but it does not use the information in its relevancy algorithm.

The app integrates citation analysis into its results by displaying two numbers beside each result--the number of times the document is cited in the entire database, and the number of times it is cited by the other documents returned by the current search. Tap the numbers, and the app gives you a list of the citing documents.

The app also lets you sort your search results based on the citation analysis. You can sort the results so that the documents cited the most in the database are at the top of the list, or so that the documents cited the most by other documents in your search results are at the top.

The app's document display delivers documents with few bells and whistles. Within the text of the document, your search terms are highlighted. In the document view, you can scroll through the document, go back to your search results, access the list of citing documents, and save the document. The save option saves the document to your Fastcase account. If you subscribe to Fastcase, you can access the document by logging into your account; if you don't subscribe, the saved documents are inaccessible.

While in document display, you can jump to the "most relevant" section of the document. The app identifies a single paragraph that seems to relate most to your search terms. In a long case dealing with multiple issues, the "most relevant" button can save time scrolling through the case looking for the highlighted terms.

Another option while viewing a document is to search within it. This search is not a "search within results" such as other legal research platforms offer, allowing you to narrow your search with additional terms. It is a find tool similar to the find function in a browser or word processor. It searches the current document for the terms you provide and has no connection to your original search.

In my testing, I had two issues with the app. The first is that some of the hyperlinks within the documents did not work. Citations to cases and statutes contained within the Fastcase database are hyperlinked so that you can jump quickly to the cited document. I tested twenty links at random, and four of them did not work. While twenty is a small sample size, I find a 20% failure rate unacceptable, particularly since I expect internal hyperlinks to work close to 100% of the time.

My second problem with the app is its relevancy ranking for search results. Fastcase claims that its "powerful sorting algorithms bring the best results to the top of the list every time." That statement is not true for the app's relevancy ranking. The algorithm places too much emphasis on the search terms themselves and ignores important measures such as the court issuing the opinion and the context of the term. For example, I ran a search for copyright AND "fair use." This is a broad search that returns many results. To get to useful results, I would generally have to narrow it with additional information. But with the search as is, the best results are Sony, Campbell, and Harper Row, three of only four United States Supreme Court cases to address fair use under the 1976 Copyright Act. I would expect my search to return those three cases at the top. In Lexis and Google Scholar, those three cases are the top three results. In the Fastcase app, Sony and Harper Row are results 4 and 5. Campbell is buried at 21, two screens away from the top of the list. Even though Campbell is a hugely significant fair use case, the Fastcase app puts federal district court cases ahead of it in the results because they use the phrase "fair use" more often.

Another example of the relevancy ranking's less than stellar performance is a search for Miranda. Again, this is not a search that I would use in actual research, but it is a search that should return a predictable set of results. It should return Miranda v. Arizona, but it should also return near the top other significant Miranda rights cases, such as Edwards v. Arizona, Rhode Island v. Innis, and Oregon v. Elstad. A search for Miranda in Lexis, Westlaw, and Google Scholar all return these or similar cases in the top 10 results. But the Miranda search in the Fastcase App returns cases with a party named Miranda. Of the first 50 search results, only two were Miranda rights cases rather than cases with a party named Miranda. I should find cases with Miranda as a party if I search cases by party name, but the best search alogrithms understand that Miranda used as a keyword more likely refers to a legal doctrine than a person.

I was able to avoid some of the problems created by the relevancy ranking by sorting my search results in the app by times cited. A general times cited sort had its own issues; a case that was cited for a proposition unrelated to my search could end up at the top of the search results, messing up the rankings. The times cited within the search results sort solved this issue by bringing up only documents cited by cases that contained my search terms, and were therefore were likely citing the documents on my issue. While this search approximated the results that I expected and got from other legal research platforms, I think it is an imperfect solution because it shifts from a focus on search terms to the exclusion of everything else to a focus on citation analysis to the exclusion of everything else.

Overall, the Fastcase app is a decent free option for legal research. The ability to view superseded statutes is a strong selling point, as are the innovative citation analysis and clean interface. Unfortunately, the issues with internal hyperlinks prevent the app from being one you could depend on in a situation where reliable access is a priority, such as quick searches in the midst of a court hearing.

The relevancy ranking serves as both a plus and a minus. The minus is that you can never be sure that you're not missing a highly relevant case a pager or two deeper in the results. Because of this, I would not use the app as a replacement for other legal research platforms. The plus is that the ranking may reveal cases that you would have overlooked in a more standard list of results. This makes the Fastcase app a good place to turn to get a new perspective on your research.

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