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The National Archives is recruiting volunteers to update the statute book
Joshua RozenbergThursday 28 June 2012 by
Ignorance of the law is, notoriously, no excuse. But the individual citizen has never had access to a free, up-to-date account of what the law is on any particular topic. Acts of parliament can be consulted in public libraries (if there are any left) but a printed copy is only the starting point: many acts do not specify a commencement date and the legislation, as passed, cannot tell you whether it has been subsequently amended or repealed.
That information is provided online by Westlaw UK and LexisNexis; but it comes at a price. The two legal publishers employ teams of researchers to update and annotate raw legislation as it arrives from parliament. If the Ministry of Justice did not buy subscriptions to these valuable services, even the judges would have difficulty keeping up.
That is because the government’s offering is still lagging behind. After a series of Whitehall reorganisations, responsibility for maintaining the statute book, as lawyers still like to call it, ended up with the National Archives, an executive agency of the MoJ based, in Kew, at what used to be called the Public Record Office. Carol Tullo, director of information policy at the National Archives, is also Controller of HM Stationery Office and Queen’s Printer of Acts of Parliament. Two years ago, the National Archives brought together several different databases to create legislation.gov.uk, a comprehensive website of primary and secondary legislation dating back to 1267.
If you type the name of any piece of legislation into Google, the first site you are likely to be offered is the contents page of the act on that website. But you may also see a warning that there are ‘outstanding changes not yet made by the legislation.gov.uk editorial team’ to the legislation you are looking at. Without combing through subsequent legislation, you cannot be sure that a provision that affects you has not been amended or repealed.
If the site is to compete with the commercial publishers, it has to be up to date. But the existing editorial team of 23 staff do not have the capacity to revise the legislation and, of course, there is no money for extra staff. So they have had to think more creatively. At a legal technology conference in London tomorrow, John Sheridan, head of legislative services at the National Archives, will announce plans to recruit a team of volunteers to help his staff update the statute book. ‘People expect legislation to be free, current and to apply where they live,’ he tells me. ‘That’s our ambition.’
Sheridan, an IT specialist by training, estimates that a team of no more than 50 ‘external expert participants’ will be needed to bring the database up to date by 2015. He is looking for people who have a mental image of how legislation is constructed and amended, although his volunteers do not have to be lawyers. All will be trained and given the software tools they need to work online. Sheridan tells me his department is the world leader in this technology.
I suspect that legal librarians and publishers will be clamouring to volunteer. An understanding of legislation is essential for developers seeking to make use of the statute book, whether by adding cases and commentaries as the traditional legal publishers do, or by developing apps for smartphones and tablet computers. They will find the code for each page freely available.
How, though, can Sheridan afford to train external participants? ‘A review editor could spend two weeks reviewing a piece of legislation,’ he explains. ‘Doesn’t it make more sense for the editor to spend that time imparting knowledge to someone else?’ It is a variant on the supposed Chinese proverb: ‘give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime’.
Even if legislation.gov.uk is updated as quickly as its commercial competitors, there will still be a strong market for LexisNexis and Westlaw UK because they provide so much more than the raw legislation. Reading an act of parliament, even one that is totally up to date, will give the reader little idea of how the courts will apply it in practice. It is useful to know the maximum penalty for an offence but it is even more useful to know what the current sentencing range happens to be.
On the other hand, the legislation site allows you to go back in time to see which parts of an act were in force on a particular date. This is particularly important if you are dealing with different parts of the UK; laws may remain in force in England while no longer applying to Scotland or Wales. Recruiting volunteers to build a website reminds me of Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia that anyone can edit. But there is an important difference: with Wikipedia, inadvertent errors will stay online until someone corrects them. That is not acceptable on this site and so each amendment drafted by a volunteer will be checked at four different stages in the editing process.
Not, of course, that parliament always gets it right. Paragraph 59 of schedule 17 of the Enterprise Act 2002 makes a minor change to the wording of section 427A(3) of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000. But the 2000 act does not have a section 427A, let alone a section 427A(3). So paragraph 59 has not been brought into force; and never will be. No doubt the officials who missed this one 10 years ago fervently hoped that nobody would ever notice.