Secret laws, right here, right now.

September 23rd, 2006

It seems that there is no free public access to a complete database of all the laws in the UK. The Guardian reported in August 2006 the following:

Shhh – don’t pass it on. It’s the kind of secrecy one might expect for a database of proposed nuclear reactors or plans to go to war. But a database containing the laws of the land? Surely the only way to obey the law is to know what it is in the first place? On August 2, the government rolled out the second stage of a long-delayed project to make the consolidated law of parliament accessible to the people. So how does it look? The public – who paid for the whole project – can’t get a look in. […]

No free public access sites have been granted permission to view the current system and testers of the database – predominantly from commercial legal publishing firms – have been told not to share their login and password. Even so, some testers are not entirely happy with what they’ve found after logging on to the top secret database of our country’s laws. […]

Firstly, an astounding Crown copyright notice greets the reader: “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.” […]

No matter that the value was added by public officials at taxpayer expense. Small commercial legal publishers and democracy advocates are outraged. “It is appaling that a government feels it should sell the laws it makes to the general public who must obey them,” said developer Francis Irving, who last month won two New Statesman new media awards for his web sites (the contribution to civic society award) and (advocacy award). “Because the DCA’s data cannot be reproduced, it makes it impossible for anyone else to compete by providing new and innovative ways of accessing and learning the law.”

Irving had hoped to create a free, user-friendly legal database to rival his previous successes. As such he filed Freedom of Information Act requests last year asking for the raw data held by the Department for Constitutional Affairs. Instead of thanking Irving for his interest, the DCA denied his request. Matthew Elliot, the chief executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, is appalled by the government’s response: “Any information collected by the government at taxpayers’ expense should be freely available to the public. If private organisations are willing to collate information at no expense to the taxpayer, why on earth is the government spending money doing exactly the same thing?” […]

US law is copyright free

This is not how it could, or should, have happened. In the US, where information compiled at public expense by public officials is copyright free, the public has had access to consolidated law for decades. Since 1992, the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University in New York has been the leading online resource for US law and Supreme Court decisions. “The raw material for our United States Code collection is provided us by the law revision counsel’s office in the House of Representatives,” says institute director Thomas R Bruce. “They have actively helped us with the things we publish.”[…]
The Guardian

I was aware that crown copyright exists on documents created by the state; when helping prepare a database of all the schools in the UK we found that none exist for download as a single SQL file, and the companies that compile and rent lists charge one hundred pounds per 1000 entries, for a one time use.

We managed to put together an entire list by hand. The same needs to be done with the law.

Look at this:

Crown Copyright 2002

Acts of Parliament printed from this website are printed under the superintendence and authority of the Controller of HMSO being the Queen’s Printer of Acts of Parliament.

The legislation contained on this web site is subject to Crown Copyright protection. It may be reproduced free of charge provided that it is reproduced accurately and that the source and copyright status of the material is made evident to users.

It should be noted that the right to reproduce the text of Acts of Parliament does not extend to the Queen’s Printer imprints which should be removed from any copies of the Act which are issued or made available to the public. This includes reproduction of the Act on the Internet and on intranet sites. The Royal Arms may be reproduced only where they are an integral part of the original document. […]

Which is from the Office of Public Sector Information.

it seems that you CAN make available the law free of charge as long as you do not use the Queen’s Printer imprints or Royal Arms. This means that it is doable to make a complete and accurate copy of the entire UK law, to make it available to the public for free, and to do interesting things with it in a Web 2.0 context.

It needs now, to be compiled by hand. It is as simple as that.

If we cannot get a hold of the raw SQL dump of all the laws in the UK we will have to build this database ourselves, by hand, with a front end (a Wikipedia of UK law?) and lots of volunteers. We will license this work under a GPL style license, meaning no copyright on our work (crown copyright will continue to persist), and if you want to use any of our work (the typing out, the SQL dump), what you make must also be made available in an SWL dump.

The Guardian article in typical fashion, does not say how big the law is; how many laws there are, and how long it would take for an army of volunteers to type it all in to a database. It doesn’t quote the copyright statement from the site that the article itself links to. As usual they talk only about ‘the problem’, without describing it in detail, and don’t even attempt to offer a solution, and this is in the Technology section. Same old Guardian!

Now, we have some choices to make. Should be create a wiki of laws that we want removed, or create a wiki of all the laws and then build the Web 2.0 service that is described in this post. Its a chicken and egg problem; how can you create a service to prune bad law when the entire text of the law is not freely and easily available to search and read?


One Response to “Secret laws, right here, right now.”

  1. meaumeau Says:

    We received this:

    I want… the text of an Act of Parliament.
    Full texts of Public Acts from 1988 and Local Acts from 1991 are available on the HMSO website. Before these dates you will need to consult the paper versions – there are no free online versions available.


    Titles (not contents) of all Acts from 1497 to 1999 can be searched on our online catalogue, Portcullis. To restrict your search to public Acts of Parliament only, enter

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