The road to free law

By Nick Holmes on October 25, 2000
Comments Off on The road to free law
Filed under Cases, Legislation

Published in the Solicitors Journal, October 2000 [links updated]

As most practitioners will be aware, there exists no freely available, comprehensive and up-to-date database of UK law on the internet, but progress has been made.

The Statute Law Database?

There is no sign yet of the Statute Law Database. A note on the Lord Chancellor’s Department site (which note has remained unchanged for more than a year) states that ‘the Statutory Publications Office, an office within the Lord Chancellor’s Department, is producing a database of United Kingdom legislation. This database will be completed in 2000 when it is planned to provide government users with access to it via the Internet, and to sell electronic copies of the data to publishers for them to merge it with their products. The marketing and pricing strategy has not yet been agreed, but includes a facility to allow citizens to obtain on-demand printouts.’ It will be noted that this statement avoids any commitment to free public access!

In the meantime, the official offering of statute law comprises the HMSO legislation site at www.hmso.gov.uk/legis.htm providing access to statutes since 1996 and SIs since 1997

A case law database?

The best the state can offer here is woefully inadequate:

  • The Court Service judgments database at www.courtservice.gov.uk includes approaching 400 selected handed down CA and High Court judgments from 1996.
  • The Scottish Court Service site at www.scotcourts.gov.uk does somewhat better with over 1,000 opinions of the Sheriff Courts, Court of Session and the High Court.
  • House of Lords judgments since November 1996 are available via the parliament site at www.parliament.co.uk (approximately 220).
  • Privy Council Office judgments since 1999 (with a small number of key earlier decisions) are presented at www.privy-council.org.uk (approximately 110).

BAILII

Into the breach in the Spring this year stepped BAILII, the British and Irish Legal Information Institute at www.bailii.org, a voluntary initiative which ‘provides access to the most comprehensive free and up-to-date collection of British and Irish primary legal materials on the internet. As at 2 September 2000, BAILII includes 18 databases covering 5 jurisdictions … well over 250,000 searchable documents.’

Background on BAILII, which is shortly to obtain charitable status, is in March’s Page on the Web.

BAILII relies primarily on publicly available primary materials made available to it by Government departments and agencies, but has also negotiated access to a range of additional materials. For example:

  • The England and Wales cases database, as well as including Court Service judgments, also carries judgments from Smith Bernal’s CaseBase database from 1996 to 1999 (until 31 August).
  • BAILII is to be given the archive of all Privy Council decisions back to 1992 – the cases before 1999, apart from a small number of milestone judgments, will not be on the Privy Council site.

ukstate.com

It is not widely known that statutory materials dating back a further 10 years are freely available on The Stationery Office’s ukstate.com site [defunct]. The Stationery Office was created when the trading elements of HMSO were privatised in 1996, and has been the official publisher to Parliament for more than 200 years and is now the largest UK publisher by volume. Thus uksate.com is a commercial service, but nevertheless provides useful free access to statutory materials which are not currently available elsewhere.

To access legislation, click the Your Government tab and select Legislation. Alternatively use the Search facility. This will bring up the top few hits under the classifications Books, Legislation and Other. Scroll past the Books to Legislation and click on ‘More results from Legislation’ to view the next 30 hits.

Another approach

Another approach to finding primary law (and related documents and commentary) on the internet is to use a major search engine. Intelligent use of a good internet search engine will always reward. I favour Google at www.google.com (for the reasons and tips on using search engines, see February’s Page on the Web).

Using the full title of an Act or SI in a web search will find the official document itself as well as many useful related documents and commentary. If the title may not be unique to the UK, add the word UK to the search term to screen out irrelevant overseas sites, and bear in mind that the less specific the title, the more spurious hits will result.

The names of parties to cases provide more or less unique search terms which will usually turn up many useful resources, including the official full text of the judgment if available.

All major search engines provide the means to search specific domains and this will often be quicker and more convenient than the sites own search facility. A search page pre-configured to enable searches on all the official primary law sites is [no longer on this site].