An explanation of the National Archives project to provide fully consolidated legislation online for free through www.legislation.gov.uk.
The legal information landscape is changing. New web technology and an innovative new business model from the government means that those wishing to access high-quality reused primary law, once available almost exclusively through commercial publishers, can increasingly do so online and for free. While free sources of primary law are nothing new, the quality, functionality and coverage of these sources are significantly improved.
In the past, concerns over the reliability of free sources have led lawyers to avoid them, but this is changing. The website www.legislation.gov.uk is the official home of the UK statute book. Launched in 2010 by The National Archives, it replaced the government's previous online legislation services with a radical new technology platform.
Free and revised
Legislation is published to www.legislation.gov.uk as soon as it is enacted or made. As the official home of legislation, it is available there before anywhere else. Primary legislation is held on the site in revised form. Any outstanding changes which have not yet been incorporated into the text of the legislation are clearly detailed at the top of the relevant section. This allows users quickly to verify if there have been any changes to the legislation that they need to worry about, but which have not yet been included in the latest version of the text.
The National Archives has been developing its technology platform to enable it to incorporate outstanding amendments much faster. As each amendment is completed, the site's "time travel" tool allows users to easily see how legislation stood, and will stand, at different points in time.
"Our aim is to develop a sustainable model for making official and revised UK legislation, public, open and available for free," says John Sheridan, Head of Legislation Services at The National Archives. "We believe we've achieved this and you will see a real difference to the amount of revised legislation on the site."
"The benefits to users are clear", adds Sheridan. "People and businesses need to know what regulations are current and in force, what laws they need to comply with. Helping them to find that information quickly and reliably reduces risk and saves time, providing real economic benefit to the UK private sector as well as back to government itself. "
Linked data: a world first
Making this project possible is the world's first linked data statute book: a sophisticated technological platform which more effectively manages the vast amounts of data about each piece of legislation, including what its effects are, and when and where the legislation comes into force.
The technology approach has attracted the interest of academics around the world who specialise in legal information. As Thomas Bruce, Director of Cornell University's Legal Information Institute in New York, and one of the most respected leaders in the field, recently tweeted: "you guys are doing stuff we just talk about".
What is special about www.legislation.gov.uk is how documents and data are managed together. This involves using the latest linked data technology alongside more established web-publishing tools. The combination of these two technologies gives the platform huge power and flexibility. It means that the team can automate some tasks previously done manually by legal editors. The use of natural language processing technology to assist the manual editorial work is also revolutionary.
Clare Allison, Strategy and Development Manager at The National Archives explains: "While we will never be able to fully automate the process, this gives us a huge head start. Once the legislation has been read by the computer our team then only have to manually identify the more subtle amendments which are difficult for a machine to find. Going forwards we are training the computer to do better and better."
The National Archives is also working closely with government departments to find out about new legislation earlier and researching amendments in advance to drive more efficient updating. "Doing the research first makes a huge difference to how fast we can go, by an order of magnitude," says Allison. "This will be reflected in the increased amount of revised legislation available on www.legislation.gov.uk from the autumn." (See box "Public sector: bespoke solutions".)
Power of participation
The advanced technology that underpins www.legislation.gov.uk has also enabled The National Archives to invite others to be involved with revising legislation. In 2011, the organisation started work on its Expert Participation Programme, which allows trained editors from private and public sector organisations to help revise the legislation.
There are no stated restrictions on who can take part, but The National Archives takes a strict approach to ensure quality. "This isn't a Wiki," explains Sheridan, "this is work for experts; participants are trained and have to reach the same standards of accuracy as The National Archives in-house team. Many of our participants are paralegals or have legal training. We employ rigorous review and training processes, so the quality of the revised legislation is second to none."
The process of revising legislation is split into three stages: analysing new legislation for amendments and compiling a list of those effects; research to establish whether, when and where the legislation is in force and translating this into data; and, finally, applying all the changes to create the amended version of the statute.
All research carried out by scheme participants is reviewed to ensure quality and accuracy. This process allows users of www.legislation.gov.uk to see how a piece of legislation has been amended and to access the amending legislation.
To incentivise participation, The National Archives is allowing participants to choose, where possible, which pieces of legislation they would like to revise. Practical Law is one of several organisations including academic institutions, the devolved administrations and other legal publishers participating in the scheme.
Practical Law has been involved in the programme for the last year. A team of the company's paralegals has prioritised its efforts on revising the pieces of legislation that are used by lawyers in practice. They are aiming to have all the legislation that is referred to in the Practical Law materials available in fully consolidated form by the end of 2012. The Companies Act 2006, for example, is now available online in fully revised format with all amendments incorporated directly into the text.
The National Archives is aiming to go to the parts of the statute book that others find hard to reach. Says Sheridan: "Comprehensive coverage including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is core to the project. This is something that isn't really covered by the existing commercial services because it's not cost-effective but is part of the government's public task."
Efforts to date have focused on primary legislation but The National Archives has ambitions for secondary legislation too. "We know participants in government and in the private sector want to be able to revise secondary legislation, so we've created the tools for this," says Sheridan. "Revised secondary legislation on the site is the next goal."
As part of its open data strategy, the government is encouraging the re-use of data on www.legislation.gov.uk by the private sector. Practical Law is the first organisation to take up the challenge. From autumn 2012, Practical Law subscribers will be able to view and search the text of free, revised primary UK legislation without leaving the Practical Law website. They will also see links displayed to related Practical Law content and commentary.
Guy Baring, Practical Law UK CEO, explains: "We have linked to primary sources from our know-how resources for a long time, but this integration of legislation from www.legislation.gov.uk in addition to our links to content and functionality on Westlaw UK, allows our users to easily refer to the legislation they need and see related guidance written by our experts. For our users it increases the value of their subscription and gives them more choice as to where and how they access primary sources."
The service built by Practical Law is "a real exemplar for re-use of data from www.legislation.gov.uk," says Sheridan. "Practical Law is making an outstanding contribution to the goal of an up-to-date, public and open and free statute book," he adds. "We're delighted to be working with them on this ground-breaking initiative."
Preview Practical Law's legislation pages at: www.practicallaw.com/uklegislation/legislation
The National Archives is keen to ensure that government departments, as regular users of legislation, benefit from developments with www.legislation.gov.uk.
The team is working with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to build an extension of the site to allow Defra to manage its own environmental legislation; to see what is in force, what is going out of force and to classify legislation by UK and European policy areas. The extension will also allow the department to publish related environmental guidance and policy documents. In turn, the information provided by Defra will be available on www.legislation.gov.uk for all users to access.
John Sheridan, Head of Legislation Services at The National Archives, explains: "The approach of helping a department to manage its stock of legislation is one being piloted with Defra, but which we hope to offer other departments over the course of the next year. The Red Tape Challenge team in the Cabinet Office wants departments to have the right legislative tools in place. We're ideally placed to help deliver that ambition using the innovation and thinking behind www.legislation.gov.uk."
Preview Practical Law's legislation pages at: www.practicallaw.com/uklegislation/legislation.