Escaping the relational database paradigm:
Case management in the High Court of Australia

Making Notes (slightly) relational

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In a traditional, relational database, information can be thought of as being stored in tables. Every record (or row) in a table is distinct due to a unique field (or combination of fields) called the primary key. Every field (or column) has a distinct name, but the same field can appear in many tables. The requirement of referential integrity in a relational database ensures that tables within that database are consistent with each other.

A Notes database is not a relational database. Much of its flexibility and power derives from its being freed of the constraints of relational databases. This distinction is best illustrated by example—an example which demonstrates how case management system developed for the High Court makes use of Notes's flexibility, but also forces Notes to behave like a relational database in some ways.

In every party document in the cases database, information is displayed about that party's legal representatives (unless the party is self-represented). In addition to the name and contact number for the firm of solicitors representing that party, there is displayed the name and contact number of the solicitor on the record (that is, the practitioner with carriage of the matter) and that party's counsel.

If a practitioner's phone number changes in the practitioners database (because she/he has moved firms) that change is reflected in the information displayed in the party document only if the practitioner is that party's counsel—not if the practitioner is that party's solicitor. The system behaves like a relational database (ensuring that that practitioner's new phone number appears beside her/his name wherever it is displayed throughout the system) only if the practitioner is a barrister; Notes's freedom from referential integrity means that a different phone number might appear beside a given practitioner's name in several party documents.

This asymmetrical treatment of practitioners reflects the difference between barristers and solicitors. If a barrister changes phone numbers, she/he is still likely to be the appropriate contact for a given party in a given case. If a solicitor changes phone numbers, she/he has most likely changed firms; although solicitors sometimes take their clients with them when they move firms, it is more likely that the appropriate contact number for that party will remain unchanged because the solicitor's replacement (or someone close to that telephone) will have carriage of the case. (Of course, if a solicitor changes numbers and takes a client with her/him, the contact number displayed in the party document can be updated.)

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