The Statute Law Database is a project of the Statutory Publications Office (SPO), an office within the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA). It has a long and chequered history, reaching back to 1991 when the initial project was started. Until recently little information was released about the project, though regular assurances were given as to its progress and, since 1995, as to it being publicly available “next year”. Now, finally, it is a reality.
What is the Statute Law Database?
The SLD is a database of UK legislation containing the texts of all Acts that were in force on 1 February 1991, and all Acts and printed Statutory Instruments passed since then. It also contains local legislation, both primary and printed secondary. The SPO editorial team maintains the database by adding new legislation and applying the effects of amending legislation using a specially-designed editorial system. For end users, access to the SLD is enabled with an enquiry system that provides a historical view of primary legislation for any specific day from the base date of 1 February 1991 and any prospective legislation. Although secondary legislation is not being consolidated, the enquiry system facilitates the identification of any legislation that amends or repeals it.
The SLD data is tagged in XML describing each document’s properties (metadata), the structure of its content (parts, sections etc) and, most importantly, also identifying all amendments since original publication: amendment date, commencement/repeal dates, amending instrument citations, etc. Each document thus includes a complete history and enables a view of the document at any point in time (from 1 February 1991) to be generated, with annotations indicating the authority for the amendments incorporated.
Why is it 10 years late?
Hansard reveals (HC Hansard, 17 July 2001) that development of the SLD was contracted to Syntegra Ltd (a BT company, previously Secure Information Systems Ltd) and the project was delivered in November 1993, though not formally accepted until Summer 1995, at a cost of £700,000. It is not clear what was delivered at that time, nor what happened to the project for the next several years.
By March 1999 it was reported that:
The partially updated database is presently available to a number of users within central government who have access to the Statutory Publications Office Intranet. The Lord Chancellor’s Department are considering options for the future marketing of the Statute Law Database. These options include free Internet access, the granting of non-exclusive licences to legal information publishers and the provision of a subscription on-line service. (HC Hansard 15 March 1999)
In September 1999 a demonstration version of the SLD was made available on the Syntegra Track Record website, containing legislation for the years 1985 to 1995, though this soon disappeared.
Subsequent references do not explain why the system was not soon made public but simply that the database was being brought up to date (an unending project of course) and was soon to be made available to the Government Legal Service. However, the whole project was revisited and in May 2004 TSO announced that it was working with the DCA to modernise the SLD, with Computacenter providing the underlying infrastructure.
The modernisation programme had four main objectives:
- replacement of the editorial maintenance system;
- development of an enquiry system for the Government Service;
- development of an enquiry system for use by the general public; and
- to revise and produce an up-to-date UK Statute Book.
The final mile
The Government Service enquiry system was launched on 31 May 2006 and the pilot for the public version is now under way. This is in three phases. Phase 1 included a very limited number of test users. Phase 2 lasted for 5 weeks ending 6 September 2006 and included a larger number of test users drawn it seems from “stakeholders” with a particular interest in the development and use of legal information. I am one. Phase 3 will include over 100 test users, following which the DCA will evaluate all responses, modify the SLD accordingly and publish the final public version. Public release is now scheduled for December 2006.
The Government Service enquiry system (ie web interface) was developed against specific user requirements drawn up by representatives from (typically) the Government Legal Service, the judiciary and law librarians. The web facility has also been designed to meet the requirements of those with special needs and close attention has been paid to producing a facility that meets government standards for accessibility. Regarding the enquiry system for the general public, requirements have been based on feedback received over a number of years by the SPO Helpdesk from a range of non-government bodies and individuals.
How does it shape up?
As a Phase 2 test user, I’ve been favoured with access to the SLD as it currently stands. Does it measure up to my expectations? Here are the substantial issues in my view:
Some 75 Acts – many substantial – remain to be loaded on the SLD. Further, the effects of much 2002 to 2005 legislation and all 2006 legislation are not yet consolidated. Nor are pre-2001 SIs yet loaded. It is understood this work will be completed by the end of the year when the SLD will be launched. It is not essential that the SLD is complete before launch as it already delivers far more value than the free public access alternatives available. However, if it is significantly incomplete, it is likely to be compared unfavourably with the commercial alternatives.
An important part of statute law research is the following up of references to other legislation. The SLD links only a few such cross-references in the annotations (and the criteria for those selected for markup is not clear). It would be a huge improvement if every reference to another piece of legislation were hyperlinked. This need not be a burdensome task: hard-coded links are not required; as demonstrated by a number of publishers (including ourselves), it is possible with a good degree of accuracy to recognise statutory citations and mark them up on the fly.
One can go to the SLD site and find what one is looking for reasonably quickly. However, one of the fundamental principles of the web (one of Engelbart’s Requirements) is that “every object that someone might validly want/need to cite should have an unambiguous address (capable of being portrayed in a manner as to be human readable and interpretable)”. In the context of the SLD such an address would be constructed from the legislation type, year and number. It is currently only possible to address a piece of legislation by its system ID (the Active Text Document ID). So in order to link to a piece of legislation one needs to find the appropriate provision on the SLD and cut and paste the URL including the document ID. But the system can readily map a query for a particular type-year-number to its document ID, and such a system of addressing should be implemented. Then anyone wishing to link to the SLD could do so “blind”.
Free access to the laws that bind us?
The DCA is reserving its position on rights to access and re-use the SLD which it regards as a “value added product” for which it must, according to the Treasury, attempt to recoup its outlay.
The consolidation, annotation and XML tagging of the statute law is what the DCA regards as its added value (ie over and above what it is required to do) and as such the SLD is specifically excluded by example from OPSI’s PSI licensing. See OPSI’s Guidance – Reproduction of United Kingdom, England, Wales and Northern Ireland Primary and Secondary Legislation, specifically para 15.
In line with this position, the SLD at present contains the following copyright notice:
The Statute Law Database and the material on the SLD website are subject to Crown copyright protection. The Crown copyright waiver that applies to published legislation generally does not apply to SLD because it is a value-added product. Any reuse of material from SLD will be the subject of separate and specific licensing arrangements. No such arrangements have yet been entered into. Users should not therefore reproduce or reuse any material from SLD until further guidance is issued.
The SPO is currently developing a commercial strategy, working with Partnerships UK, in line with the Treasury’s Wider Markets Initiative which is designed to encourage appropriate commercial activity to ensure that public bodies make the most effective use of their assets. The SPO is also endeavouring to secure commercial partnerships with private sector legal publishers for the exploitation of the data. The current position is believed to be that government users will have full and free access and those accessing the public version will not be charged for retrieval of the current in-force versions. It is understood that final decisions concerning access to historical or “point-in-time” views and as to re-use have not been made yet.
Any suggestion that the public might be charged for access to the SLD has aroused heated debate. As Jonathan Mitchell QC argued last year:
In a free society, it is wrong that people should have to pay to find out about the laws that bind them. I draw no distinction between historical texts of legislation that was passed by Parliament and later texts that are produced today or were produced at some intermediate date. The public’s interest in both cases is identical: it is in the law that governs or governed them on the date that matters – it is not necessarily anything to do with the date on which the legislation was passed. (Scottish Parliament, Subordinate Legislation Committee, 25 January 2005)
What of re-use then? There are any number of ways the DCA could charge for commercial re-use. But if the SLD comes up to scratch – ie, as advertised, is the definitive, reliable, up-to-date repositary of consolidated primary and unconsolidated secondary legislation – commercial publishers will think twice about substantial re-use and repurposing of the data. Instead they will link extensively to the SLD and/or frame SLD provisions alongside their own annotations and commentary.