Internet Newsletter for Lawyers
The public provision of law on the web leaves much to be desired:
This article takes stock of the current position and looks at ongoing initiatives to improve it. It refers in the main to primary law. However, similar issues apply also to other legal documents: official papers and reports, law forms and other authored legal resources on the web.
HMSO's site publishes a complete set of primary and delegated legislation of the four UK and national parliaments from 1988 onwards. While this is a substantial database (about 930 Acts and 29,000 SIs), there is nevertheless a large body of earlier statute law currently in force that is unavailable on the web.
The position with case law is even less satisfactory, as will be seen from the table below. Selected handed-down judgments started appearing on the Court Service site in 1996. The number of judgments being added has increased significantly, but remains incomplete. The ongoing provision from other courts appears more comprehensive, though few go back earlier than 1996 - effectively the year the world discovered the web.
about 170 judgments:
House of Lords
about 300 judgments:
The Court Service
about 850 Court of Appeal and High Court judgments:
The Scottish Court Service
about 1700 Supreme Court and Sheriffs Court decisions:
Employment Appeal Tribunal
about 460 decisions:
Social Security Commissioners
selected starred decisions and reported decisions:
ICLR (Daily Law Notes)
about 700 case summaries:
This is a favoured expression (of intent) in relation to government these days. How about joined up law? The law is not joined up, firstly, in the sense that statute law is not officially published in consolidated form. This, of course, has nothing to do with the web, but is simply an historical deficiency. But somehow the publication of the law in unconsolidated form on the web brings home how un-joined up it is. A Statute Law Database has been in development for many years and is intended to remedy this, providing a consolidated corpus of statute law able to reflect the law as it stood at any particular date. It currently contains the text of all Acts that were in force on 1 February 1991, and all Acts and printed Statutory Instruments passed since then. The Statutory Publications Office reports that there now over 400 users of the SLD from other government departments. The SPO is evaluating the best way of making the data available to all the various bodies that will require access in the future. It estimates that the editorial work will be completed by Spring 2002 and that the information will be available to the general public at that time free of charge.
Another respect in which the law is not joined up is that it is published on many disparate sites, largely unconnected save for the odd set of "useful links". This has implications as to the accessibility of the law as discussed below.
To access all primary law on the web requires visiting a dozen unconnected sites. This in itself is inconvenient. But this is compounded by the fact that each site has a different structure and different methods of access. Some sites do not have a search facility and can only be browsed; others provide a structured search of key data fields (eg name, date, court etc); and others provide full text searching using various search engines. The average user is understandably completely at sea and cannot extract optimum value from what is intended in sum to be a valuable resource.
Of course a friendly means of accessing each database (via browsable indexes, a structured search template or other site search engine) should be provided by the publisher. However, this will be a local solution based on perceived requirements for accessing a particular set of documents. It is far more important that the documents should be readily identifiable and accessible in the first place so that others may develop access solutions (across these databases) best suited to their requirements.
For optimum accessibility what is required is that:
As to the first requirement, Acts and SIs have long had a standard method of numbering (ie year and chapter/SI number) and HMSO now uses this systematically in its website file management.
However, as to cases, there was until recently no system at all. As from 11 January 2001 a form of neutral citation is now employed in both divisions of the Court of Appeal (EWCA Civ and EWCA Crim) and in the Administrative Court (EWHC Admin), judgments being uniquely numbered and cited in the following way:
 EWCA Civ 1 (see Practice Direction (Judgments: Form and neutral citation), 11 January 2001 http://www.lawreports.co.uk/civjan0.3.htm).
This scheme is also adopted by the House of Lords (UKHL). There seems to me no good reason why this scheme should not be extended post haste to other courts and even applied retrospectively. And having implemented this scheme, why not use it in the website file management (none of the relevant sites currently does).
The second requirement may appear more demanding, but is by no means a large task for each publisher given appropriate expert input. It is astonishing how many web pages, even from the official sites in question, sport a meaningless title (ie that which appears in the blue bar at the top of your browser): the title is the most fundamental form of reference for a web document, used and displayed by the search engines.
As to what scheme should be employed, there is a widely adopted metadata standard, known as Dublin Core or "DC" (see http://dublincore.org/). This is being adopted as the basis for a metadata scheme for websites "developed by organisations in the legal and advice sectors" under proposals published by the Community Legal Service. The CLS scheme is understandably geared to the needs of the general public: it is to be hoped it will be adaptable to the needs of lawyers. For further details see my article at http://www.infolaw.co.uk/ifl/articles/lwi0012.htm.
The above summarises the current problems and some of the official initiatives under way that may (in time) remedy these. But what other solutions are available now?
The charitable initiative BAILII needs no introduction in this Newsletter, having been described in previous issues (see the January/February issue). As to comprehensiveness, BAILII is still in its set-up phase and lacks many publicly available materials, significantly UK statutory instruments. Legislation is from HMSO and so dates from 1988 only and is in unconsolidated form, though the full text of the Revised Northern Ireland Statutes since 1495 (sic) is available. Conversely, case report coverage is far wider: Smith Bernal have provided their CA and HC reports from 1996 to 1999 to supplement the handed-down cases provided by the Court Service. The current aim is to bring the BAILII databases into "fully-acceptable shape" by October 2001.
Quantity aside, joining up the law and making it more accessible is BAILII's signal achievement. All materials are available in one place, cross-referenced and in one uniform searchable format.
Consolidating, annotating and commenting on legislation and case law has always been the bread and butter of the major commercial publishers. From copious printed volumes of Halsbury's Statutes and the like, offerings have evolved into sophisticated online databases from Butterworths, Sweet & Maxwell/Westlaw, Justis, Lawtel, Smith Bernal etc. The big drawback is of course cost, with prices for services starting at several hundred pounds per user per annum.
At infolaw, we are doing things differently. We started from the premise that on the web a document need only be published once. That document can then be directly referenced by anyone. Further, if value is to be added, there is (in theory) no need to reprocess and republish the document (as does BAILII), since additional data can be extracted from and/or associated with the document and published "alongside" it or the data and additional rules can be used to process the document "on the fly" and redisplay it with value added.
This is essentially what the major search engines do - and do extremely well. However, they are using fully automated processes to crawl and process any type of document or other web object on any subject. What a UK legal web search tool needs to do is focus on UK legal sites and others that are likely to be useful to the UK lawyer!
So we set out to catalogue what there is on the "UK legal web" and to design a search tool that is sensitive to the UK legal context. The infolaw catalogue now includes Acts, SIs, Cases, Forms and Precedents, Other Documents such as Bills, Command Papers and Law Commission reports; as well as hundreds of key Legal Resources sites and public and national Organisations of use to the lawyer providing direct access to more than 36,000 documents and other resources in total.
The catalogue can be browsed by category or searched and there are also powerful "references to" features for following up references to documents found and forwarding search terms to other search engines.
We do not compile a full text index of all the documents. Of course this has disadvantages, but for the initial service it is a deliberate choice. Structuring the searching and results has the advantage that all results are relevant: there is no spurious relevance ranking and results are delivered latest first (for dated documents such as Acts, SIs and Cases). References can also be found, followed up and compared far more precisely than with a full text search engine. Having said that, we intend to provide a full text solution in due course.
The new infolaw service can be accessed at http://www.infolaw.co.uk.
Nick Holmes is an electronic publishing consultant and Managing Director of infolaw (Information for Lawyers Limited). He maintains the excellent infolaw website at http://www.infolaw.co.uk which is being relaunched in mid-September with the powerful new search tool for UK law described in this article. email email@example.com.
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