In many countries, such as the United States, laws are published as open data, which anybody can copy and reproduce. In the United Kingdom, only the changes to the law (patches, in computer science terms) are published freely. You can find them on the Office of Public Sector Information (OPSI) website. They are known as acts and statutory instruments. To get the actual “consolidated” law – that is the law which you need to obey – you have to pay a private company for access to a database.

This article about the Statute Law Database describes the ongoing story of a 13 year old government project to make consolidated UK law freely available. However, it has a worrying copyright status. Scroll down to the section “Free access to the laws that bind us?” and read the copyright notice on the pilot website. It isn’t clear yet exactly what restrictions on reproducing our laws the government will make using copyright, but it doesn’t look good.

It seems strange that we have to lobby and campaign to make the law of the land open knowledge. But it looks like we have to.

(Further information: Read the article linked to above, this article by Heather Brooke in the Guardian, and an earlier one in The Times)

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3 thoughts on “Free access to the laws that bind us?”

  1. A big hear-hear on this issue Francis as well as one question: what would you suggest doing to get the Department of Constitutional Affairs/OPSI’s to open the data up?

  2. That’s a good question – which is another way of saying that I don’t know the answer!

    In terms of lobbying, the law librarians seem to be closest to asking for what we want. It would be possible to start a campaign with them and with BAILII.

    Perhaps the Bar Council and the Law Society could be persuaded to join in as well. It would ultimately be to the financial advantage of their members. In Canada, I’m told, similar organisations paid for a freely available statute law database to be made (I don’t have a reference for this).

    Getting various voluntary legal aid groups to say how the copyright situation harms them and their clients would be an example good campaigning tactic. In many ways it is actually the case that copyright restrictions on legal information harm the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

    Next is simple disobedience. My impression of the culture amongst lawyers is that, when the DCA statute law site is live, they won’t be very obedient about the copyright anyway. There’ll be lots of people printing out sections of statute law from the DCA site and handing them round, pasting them in their own websites and so on. I know this seems strange when they are lawyers, but apparently this often happens currently with textbooks. It’s about what is easiest. I’m not sure how / if it helps us though.

    I vaguely wonder if a legal challenge is possible, but I’m not a lawyer so I don’t know. The claim that statute law is “value added” under the wider markets initiative seems completely spurious to me.

    I requested the statute law database under FOI, and they rejected my request. That’s currently in the long queue waiting for attention of the Information Commissioner. Unfortunately, even if I get the database, it doesn’t resolve the copyright/license situation.

    Any other ideas?

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