One advantage is the speed at which documents become available. Most court web sites will post opinions and make them available for download on the same day they are issued. On the other hand, some courts remove older opinions from sites rather than maintain an archive. The federal courts, for example, remove some older opinions and place them on PACER, which requires a subscription and incurs access charges for documents other than opinions. Legislative documents are not always posted with the same speed, particularly transcripts or proceedings, but usually appear on an official site before a paper version becomes available, if one becomes available at all. Agency reports or documents that are created in the course of agency business usually appear on an agency’s site around the same time as their public release.
Another advantage is the broad range of documents that are available. Obscure documents include policy statements, forms, studies, reports, and smaller information collections. Law libraries do not necessarily carry these documents in print within their collections. They rely on the Internet as the major source of access for these materials. A rule of thumb is that irregularly issued documents from any official source are more likely to appear on the Internet than Lexis or Westlaw.
A disadvantage is that the format of a document taken from the Internet may be difficult to cite. That has to do with how courts accept authentication of a document. The current standard is to recognize print collections as the official source of cases when both a print and online version exists. The only jurisdictions to abandon official printed reporters for case law entirely are Arkansas and Illinois. Beginning with opinion issued in 2009, the official source for Arkansas case law is the Arkansas court web site, though opinions will still be published by West in the Southwestern Reporter. Arkansas still requires citation to the Southwestern Reporter despite digitally publishing case opinions. Illinois dropped officially printed reports for its case law beginning with cases released after July 1. 2011. As with Arkansas case law, West will still publish printed copies of opinions in the Northeaster Reporter and Illinois Decisions. Illinois court rules require opinions issued on or after July 1, 2011 to be cited to the secured online versions while allowing (but not requiring) citation to the unofficial reports.
Court rules are changing in regard to what sources are useful for evidence of the law, especially as the courts digitize their own records. Portable Document Format or PDF files have a greater acceptance in the courts and by attorneys because they format documents almost identically to their print counterparts. Moreover, they now have the ability to be authenticated by the entity that created them. The U.S. Government Printing Office is undertaking a program that authenticates the documents it issues in PDF format, making it easier for courts to accept them as evidence. At this point in time, however, the courts will mostly require citation to an officially recognized source that is likely in paper.
There is a movement in the legal community to create a citation system that is independent of format. Some courts produce electronic documents that include neutral citation, sometimes taking the form of dates and sequential numbers, and identify sections of a document with numbered lines or paragraphs. There is no standard format adopted for universal citations, and other courts may or may not recognize them. Court rules will identify the citation standards for a particular jurisdiction. As an example, see the Court Rules for Arkansas and Illinois as to how they handle citation to their electronic opinions. Other states, such as Wisconsin, which still publishes official reports, as well as some of the federal courts, have rules on citing opinions in a vendor-neutral form.
The source of the document is another factor affecting citation. Though PDF copies are convenient, courts and lawyers look to documents from their most primary sources, especially when authenticating information in litigation. A state supreme court usually contains a limited archive (usually by date range) of its opinions. The likelihood is that the online text is accurate having come from the Court. The printed version of the opinion will be the definitive version should a discrepancy appear. The Supreme Court of the United States, for example, places PDF copies of U.S. Reports on its site and has an explicit statement on the archive page that printed versions of opinions control. A researcher may rely on the text found online but may still have to provide citations to the print versions when citing documents submitted to a court.
Another disadvantage is the lack of research aids comparable to those in print. Virtually all court opinions on the web are in slip opinion format, usually without reference to citations as they appear in printed reporters, even official reporters published by a state. Commercial print and online products usually feature annotations and cross-references to other documents or secondary source commentary. Free online legal materials are frequently in the rawest form available and often do not link to other relevant documents, even those which may be available in the same online collection. In short, the added value and convenience of commercial research databases is usually missing from free sites