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Intra Vires – a new Canadian citation tool based on McGill Guide citation rules

Intra Vires is a Canadian citation tool, intended to help law students comply with the citation requirements of the Canadian Guide to Uniform Legal Citation (also known as the McGill Guide). Intra Vires has been developed by a University of Calgary computer science graduate and a University of Toronto student in the JD/MBA program.  Intra Vires will not free students from learning citation rules, but it makes compliance easier and takes some out the drudgery out of the process.

What I liked about this tool

There are a lot of things I really liked about this tool:

  • The design is clean and attractive, with contextual help in the right margin.
  • The URL from CanLII can be pasted in, and Intra Vires will generate a citation based on the McGill Guide rules.
    • Punctuation is removed except as required in the McGill Guide, and the style of cause is italicized.
    • Up to two citations are drawn from the CanLII document. Those citations are ordered based on the McGill Guide.
  • Citations can also be generated manually by entering the style of cause, parallel citations and other required information.
  • Complex citations can be generated, including pinpoint references and case history.
  • Intra Vires contains look-up tables for the names and accepted abbreviations of case reporters and journals. This is considerably easier than accessing the appendices in the McGill Guide.
  • Intra Vires does a good job of substituting the correct journal abbreviation for the full journal name, and deals well with multiple authors.
  • The features in the Book template work well, except that a semi-colon appears instead of a colon between the place of publication and the publisher. I expect this will be corrected in time.
  • After the citation has been generated, the user can make further changes to the generated citation before saving it.
  • Once the user is happy with the citation, it can be saved to the user’s account and accessed later. However, it cannot be modified further within Intra Vires after it has been saved.
  • Intra Vires is not limited to Canadian cases. It can also be used for journals, books and dictionary definitions. Although there are modules for cases from the UK and the US, these are still a work in progress.

The Canadian functions worked well for the most part. Clearly a lot of thought has gone into this product. For example, the pinpoint feature will only show the option to cite to a page number if there is no neutral citation. Regardless of whether the CanLII URL is the static URL for a case, or the long URL that appears when a case is retrieved from a search result list, the program correctly inserts the information for the case. The program usually figures out whether the citation includes a reference to the court or jurisdiction, in order to avoid duplicating that information at the end of the citation.

Some room for improvement

My main complaint is that the program does some odd things in the style of cause or title field. Capitalization problems occurred when acronyms without periods were input. For example, C.L.E. would reappear as Cle. For some reason the word “Law” was also stripped of capitalization when it appeared in titles. Sometimes the space between words was removed.

A smaller complaint regarding Canadian cases is that the court and jurisdiction format is not always completely compliant with the McGill Guide. BC courts are shown as BC CA or BC SC instead of BCCA or BCSC, even if the acronym with no spaces is typed into the Court field. This also occurred for New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Jurisdictions where the abbreviation for the court is not a four-letter acronym were shown correctly, such as Ont CA or Alta QB.

Where the jurisdiction is embedded in the reporter name, the jurisdiction was not always removed from the end of the citation. For example, a case shown as reported in the Ontario Reports concluded with (Ont CA), whereas proper citation format would require that the citation conclude with (CA).

The Citing feature, for references in a case to other cases, was inactive when I tested the site. It would be helpful if this template included a pinpoint reference.

I did not try out the US citation features. The UK features are not as trouble-free as the Canadian ones, particularly with regard to parallel citations and pinpoint references. However, the look-up tables are useful. I understand that both the US and UK modules are a work in progress.

The program does not allow a full case citation to include more than 2 parallel citations. On occasion, users may need to include an additional citation, such as where the case has a neutral citation, has been reported, and the version being used was printed from QL or Westlaw Canada. Users may also want to include a citation to a reporter from their own jurisdiction. However, even if an additional citation is typed in on the form, it is removed when Intra Vires generates the final version of the citation. A user can add the additional citation in the Result box that appears after Generate is clicked, or after the user pastes the citation generated by Intra Vires into a document.

Given these issues, users should take a careful look at the citation that is generated by Intra Vires and make any necessary modifications. The second Result box, which appears after Generate is clicked, permits the user to revise the citation before it is saved. After this, further changes can be made when the citation is copied and pasted from the saved list of citations into the user’s document.

Free for how long?

Intra Vires subscriptions state that they are free of charge, but expire on September 1, 2014. The intention appears to be to charge for the service after that, but I understand that no firm decision has been made about whether Intra Vires will continue to be free of charge after that date.

Intra Vires cannot be used at all without obtaining an account. I understand that this is necessary in order to save citations, but people might want to simply try it out without obtaining an account. The amount of information collected to obtain an account seems a little excessive.

Last thoughts

Canadian law students have not had access to the types of citation tools available in some other jurisdictions. Intra Vires is a welcome product, even though it cannot check the accuracy of the citation itself, but only the format.

Will students learn legal citation if a tool like this is doing some of it for them? I think they will: the program can be viewed as a learning tool. Eventually, as students see the changes between the citation they input and the citation generated, they will learn the correct format. That assumes, of course, that Intra Vires will be able to correct the few problems there are at present, and keep up with the next set of citation changes that will be introduced in the 8th edition of the McGill Guide.

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