Miscellany

T H E   S T A T U T E   L A W   D A T A B A S E
by Roger Horne

  Our legislators have become verbose over the last century. For example, 1892 seems to have been a fairly busy year for Parliament: sixty-five statutes were passed. One hundred years later, in 1992, only fifty-eight statutes were passed. Yet while the 1892 statutes take up 601 pages in the Law Reports version, those passed in 1992 take up 3,512 pages.  
       It has been said for many centuries that "ignorance of the law is no excuse"[1], but it is hard to see how anyone can nowadays be believed to know all the law of the country. So the question is how can an individual discover what it is that he is meant to know?  
      Every Statute that is enacted is printed by Her Majesty's Stationery Office and can be purchased from HMSO. Since the beginning of 1996 all Statutes have also been published free of charge on the internet[2]. In that year 63 Acts were passed, the internet version consisting of about 14 megabytes of files[3].  
      But both the printed and internet versions of the Acts are static, that is to say, they do not show any amendments that have been made by later legislation. One statute which was enacted before 1996 which can be found on the HMSO Web site is the Data Protection Act 1984. Even though it was only put on that site about a year ago, its text is in the form in which it was originally enacted: no amendments are included. The Acts on the Internet are the electronic versions of the Queen's Printer's editions.  
      In some common law countries statutes are not amended but are repealed and replaced, and so it is easy to discover what the law is on a particular point. That does not happen in the United Kingdom: much of the legislation passed in any year amends, rather than replaces, earlier legislation. Perhaps the principal example of this in 1996 was the Finance Act which included 40 Schedules, most of which contained amendments of earlier fiscal legislation. The Finance Act 1997 in turn contains at least 35 separate references to the 1996 Act; it also refers to about 50 other Acts. 
       But it is not only statutes which amend earlier legislation. It is becoming more and more common for Acts to be amended by delegated legislation. In the first three months of 1997 about 800 Statutory Instruments were made[4]. A number of these contain amendments of statues[5]. 
       If you know exactly what legislation you want to look at, the internet versions of the Statutes and Statutory Instruments are extremely useful. Problems arise if you do not know what you are looking for, or if you do not know whether the Statute or Instrument you are looking for has been amended by subsequent direct or delegated legislation; hindsight is easier than foresight.  
       In the past this problem was to some extent dealt with by the official printed series called Statutes in Force. This series of volumes suffered from the disadvantage that it took a great deal of time for each particular title to be produced (with the result that it was sometimes unkindly referred to as Statutes Repealed).  
       Since the mid 1980s every statute and statutory instrument has been coded using SGML (the Standard Generalized Markup Language). SGML is an international standard[6] for the marking up of text in a way which can easily be interpreted by computers. SGML does not say how the marked up text should be used or formatted by those computers; it is up to the user to decide that. He could for example, use a program which would output the code needed to run a typesetter, or a program which searched the text, or a program which displayed the text on a screen.  
       SGML has been described as a meta-language. It describes the basic rules of grammar of a language which can be built on by other languages[7]. One such other language which will be familiar to a number of people is HTML, the language of the World Wide Web. HTML is, however, a very simple language and is not really suited for the markup of legal documents (as anyone who looks as the source code for the internet versions of the Statutes and Statutory Instruments will appreciate). A 'language' (or rather, 'Document Type Description', or 'DTD') with a somewhat more sophisticated grammar is used by HMSO to markup the text of these documents.  
      SGML markup consists of tags in angle brackets. To quote from A Gentle Introduction to SGML --
    Within a marked up text ... each element must be explicitly marked or tagged in some way. The standard provides for a variety of different ways of doing this, the most commonly used being to insert a tag at the beginning of the element (a start-tag) and another at its end (an end-tag). The start- and end-tag pair are used to bracket off the element occurrences within the running text, in rather the same way as different types of parentheses or quotation marks are used in conventional punctuation. For example, a quotation element in a text might be tagged as follows:
      ... Rosalind's remarks <quote>This is the silliest stuff that ere I heard of!</quote> clearly indicate ...
        As this example shows, a start-tag takes the form <name>, where the opening angle bracket indicates the start of the start-tag, "name" is the generic identifier of the element which is being delimited, and the closing angle bracket indicates the end of a tag. An end-tag takes an identical form, except that the opening angle bracket is followed by a solidus (slash) character, so that the corresponding end-tag would be </name>.
 
  SGML is not concerned with how that paragraph is formatted by the appropriate program on the user's computer. The program might, for example, substitute inverted commas for the <quote> and </quote> tags or might put the quotation on a separate indented line. It could even omit the quotation, or put it into a footnote.  
       The DTD defines what tags can be used and how they can be used. For example it could provide that the text of a section of a statute should be surrounded by the tags <section> and </section>. The program on the user's machine could then display the text of the section in what it, or the user, considers to be the appropriate manner.  
       The DTD could also define what tags should be used to deal with the text of a section which has been amended by other legislation. So Paragraph~8(4) of Schedule~10 to the Finance Act 1996, which was amended by the 1997 Order referred to above[8], could perhaps be marked up as---
    <subparagraph>
    (4) For the purposes of <repealed>sub-paragraph (3)</repealed> <inserted>sub-paragraphs (3) and (3A)</inserted> above the relevant assumption is that investments of the scheme or fund <inserted>or company</inserted> are qualifying investments in relation to that scheme or fund <inserted>or company</inserted> only if they fall within paragraphs (a) to (c) of sub-paragraph (2) above.
    </subparagraph>
 
  The program on the user's computer could ignore the repealed text and display the inserted text. But the markup could go further. It could give the dates on which the amendments were made, the dates on which they took effect, and the names of the Acts or SIs which had made them, and the user's program could use this markup to display a statute as it was on a particular date chosen by the user and could offer hypertext cross-references to the amending legislation.  
       The most common variant of SGML is HTML and there are programs which can display text marked up with HTML on almost every type of computer. Such a program could not interpet markup of the type set out above directly but it is very simple for a computer program to convert one form of SGML into another---the statutes and statutory instruments on the HMSO Web site have been converted by such a program from the original SGML into HTML.  
       HMSO have a program called "the Statute Law Database". This is an electronic version of Statutes in Force. It contains in SGML form the law as it was on a particular date in the 1980s together with all acts and statutory instruments which have come into force since that time. All of these are linked together. There is a 'front-end' program which can be used to search the database and to display the results in HTML. So the user should be able to use the program to discover easily what the law is on a particular point on a particular date. Since the SLD is generated from the same source material as the Queen's Printer's copies it can be kept up to date. The internet versions of the statutes appear within two weeks of the printed versions; the SLD should be capable of being updated in a similar time.  
       In Council of Law Reporting v. A.-G.[9] the evidence presented in support of the Council's claim that it was a charity included an Affidavit by Professor Goodhart. In it he said --
    English Law, usually referred to as the common law, unlike the legal systems in most continental countries, is divided into two parts: (a)~the statute law and (b)~the judge-made law. The statute law consists of the law enacted by Parliament or by some other body to whom legislative power has been given. It is obvious that these statutory enactments must be in written form and must be available to those who may be affected by them. The publication of these statutes is the responsibility of the Controller of Her Majesty's Stationery Office and Queen's Printer. They can be purchased by anyone for a small sum, covering part of the cost of printing. The printed copy is regarded as being authoritative so that it is unnecessary for anyone to ascertain whether or not it is identical with the original document. It has never been suggested that the publication of statutes should be left solely in the hands of private publishers.
 
  The legislation contained in the Statute Law Database is derived from the same source as that which is used to print the Queen's Printer's copy of the Acts. It will be as authoritative as the printed version but, since all amendments will be shown in the text, it will be immeasurably more valuable to the citizen who will be able to discover what the law is, rather than what it was when an Act was originally enacted.  
       On 9th February 1996 Mr Roger Freeman announced that Statutes would be put on HMSO's internet site. However he also said[10] --
    Copyright and charging policy on the Statute Law Database, a value-added electronic version of the whole Statute Book, now in preparation by the Statutory Publications Office, will be decided nearer the time of implementation in 1997.
 
  Since then it has become apparent that various Publishers have become interested in acquiring the Statute Law Database and it seems that the Government is keen to sell it to them; in other words it appears to be being suggested that the publication of the Statute Law Database should be put into the hands of a private publisher or publishers. This should not happen. The result of such a sale would be that the citizen would have to pay for information that should be free. If ignorance if the law is no excuse then it cannot be right that he has to pay to find out what it is.  
       The expression used by Mr Freeman "value-added" is normally used by HMSO, and in particular the Copyright Division, in connection with adding extraneous matter, such as a commentary, to a statute[11]. The Statute Law Database does not add value to the statutes in that sense: it simply makes them usable.  
       It should be possible for a third party program to interrogate the Statute Law Database, so if an electronic textbook contained a reference to the appropriate section of an Act (as amended) 'clicking' with a mouse on the reference would display the up to date version of the Section on the user's screen. There would be no need for the publisher to own the database in order to be able to link to it in this way; all that is necessary is that the database should have the necessary 'hooks' which the third party program could link to. This should cause no practical difficulties[12].  
       The Statute Law Database should be on the desk of every judge and advocate and, with advances in technology, that would prove possible in a few years time if it remains in the public domain. In other words it could be provided as part of the fixtures of the Court. If the Statute Law Database was sold to a commercial publisher this could not happen: such a publisher could not be allowed to have a monopoly of the law. It could not be a condition of appearing before a Court as an advocate (including as a litigant in person) that you would have to pay a license fee for the Statute Law Database to XYZ plc.  
       The Statute Law Database should also be in every library in the Country. At the moment Public Libraries receive a subsidy to enable them to purchase Statutes and Parliamentary Papers at half the price which they would otherwise pay[13]; making the Statute Law Database available freely in such Public Libraries might well save money. If it was available in libraries the expression "ignorance of the law is no excuse" would cease to be meaningless: there really would be no excuse for not discovering what the law was on a particular point.  

© Roger Horne.
Last updated 8th April 1997.