Accessible law?

A Page on the Web, published in the Solicitors Journal, July 2001

I first read about the web in an article in the Guardian in December 1993. This was just the ticket. Built on the internet – a network of networks that could connect everybody together – the enticing thing about the web (which in technical terms comprises the hypertext transfer protocol (http) and the standard hypertext markup language (html) developed by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory) was the ease with which any page anywhere in the world could be linked with any page elsewhere in the world.

The web had been fully operational since May 1991 on a single server at CERN. By the time of the article in late 1993 there over 500 web servers, its popularity encouraged by the development of the graphical Mosaic web browser earlier that year by Marc Andreessen (later to found Netscape). Since that time the web has roughly doubled in size every since months, growing to an estimated 24 million web servers by April 2001.

The web is a very different place to what it was in the mid 90s. The initial vision was of a medium for ‘serious research’. So much so that when the ability to link in and display images was added Berners-Lee was dismayed at this triviality.

Having now established itself as the global communications medium, the web is used for anything and everything from serious to light-hearted, useful to trivial, altruistic to exploitative. But serious research remains a key use of the web, particularly so for the professional user.

One of the key benefits of the web for research purposes is that a document need only be published once. That document can then be directly referenced by anyone. If value is to be added, there is in theory no need to reprocess and republish the document, since it can be processed ‘on the fly’ and redisplayed with value added.

It is therefore surprising that the publication of much of the law, both primary and secondary, which it is acknowledged should be accessible to all, has been approached in an unstructured fashion, significantly diminishing its potential utility.

For optimum accessibility what is required is that:

  • each document should have a permanent web reference which can readily be inferred from a standard neutral citation
  • an index displaying the key metadata associated with the document (as a minimum its title, citation, date and subject) should be published

This is not, in my view, much to ask . However, as will be seen in the accompanying examples, while HMSO largely meets these requirements, other primary law publishers do not.

Of course a friendly means of accessing each database – via browsable indexes, a structured search template or other site search engine – should be provided. However, these will be local solutions 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.

The structure of law on the web – examples


UK Acts can be accessed at in the acts/ folder.

The Social Security Contributions (Share Option) Act 2001 (citation: 2001 c. 20) will be found at acts2001/20010001.htm.

House of Lords judgments

Found at in the pa/ (parliament) folder.

Regina v. Lambert (neutral citation 2001 UKHL 37) is found at ld200102/ldjudgmt/jd010705/regina-1.htm (ie filed by parliamentary session, then by date, then by filename – unrelated to the neutral citation).

The Court Service judgments

These are in a Lotus Notes database, found at in an unmemorable folder named 5cbcc578c01a9c02802567170061b8c6/

Neil Hamilton v. Mohamed Al Fayed (a 2001 judgment of the Queen’s Bench Division – no neutral citation yet) is found at ed700e766d79173f80256a88004a6be3?OpenDocument and from thence to ed700e766d79173f80256a88004a6be3$FILE/queens_hamilton.htm