May 09 2014By Holly Winman
- A closer look at NT100 project legislation.gov.uk
by John Sheridan, Head of Legislation Services, The National Archives
‘The law must be accessible and so far as possible intelligible, clear and predictable’ writes Lord Bingham, in his acclaimed book The Rule of Law. The principle of free public access to the law underpins legislation.gov.uk and the work of the Legislation Services team at The National Archives.
The digital age has transformed who accesses the law and how. The old world, where sources of law were consulted by legal professionals, turning the pages of large bound printed volumes, has, for the most part, gone. Today people can access any piece of legislation in just a couple of clicks, more often than not, arriving at legislation.gov.uk.
John Sheridan, Head of Legislation Services, The National Archives.
Law for everyday people
So who is using legislation online? We live in a nation of laws, where the rule of law runs deep. The majority of users of legislation.gov.uk are everyday people, not legally trained or qualified, but who want to find out for themselves what a piece of legislation says. Imagine someone working in an HR department, a facilities manager, or even the citizen looking to assert their rights - this is an entirely new audience for legislation, enabled by easy online access to the law. But this comes with its challenges.
Finding a piece of legislation is one thing. Being able to correctly interpret what you’re reading is another matter entirely. Our user research has shown that people find legislation complex and difficult to understand. People lack a mental model for how the system of legislation works and how different laws are interrelated. Some of the things you need to know are not at all obvious but essential to understanding the true meaning of the law. It’s easy to assume the meaning of commonly used words – ‘child’ for example – but such words have very precise legal definitions when used in a piece of legislation. It’s also easy to assume that the piece of law you’re looking at is up-to-date, in force and applies to where you live, but that’s often not the case. Delivering legislation online is as much about aiding comprehension as it is about providing quick and easy access.
To tackle these challenges legislation.gov.uk embodies a number of principles, which are very much at the core of how the government approaches digital projects nowadays. We use open standards to represent legislation data and to exchange legislation data with others. This helps us ensure the data and the tools are portable, so we’re not locked into one supplier or one technology platform. We make all the information in the database available as open data, through an Application Programming Interface (API) - the same API we use to run the website. We also make the data available under an open licence, the Open Government Licence. Finally, with our Expert Participation Programme, we are sharing the burden of managing all this data. It means the content is curated and managed by a wider community of expert users, not just people employed by The National Archives.
A wicked problem
Managing and publishing legislation on the web, is a ‘wicked problem’. Statutes are unlike other documents. The structure and layout of legislation conveys an essential part of its meaning. Different component parts of the document carry different judicial weight. The layout needs to be reflected online, whether viewing legislation on a website, a tablet or a smart phone. Second, legislation changes over time as the text of one law is amended by subsequent Acts. All these changes need to be represented as data, as part of creating different versions of the legislation at different points in time. Finally, to help users it is important to try and capture some of what a legislative text means. For example, does this provision create a duty or an offence, or a power which enables other legislation to be made.Representing this meaning as data is crucial to then providing a better user experience.
As a result of this work legislation can be much more accurately cited – people are now using social networks such as Twitter to link to a specific section, paragraph or schedule that’s relevant to their point.
Open Data as an operating model
The benefits of opening up our data have been enormous. Take the work of revising legislation, working out how the law has changed over time and creating versions of the legislation that show those changes. There are far more changes being made to the law than The National Archives, on our own, can possibly keep up with. Open data has enabled us to open up the work of maintaining that data to ‘expert participants’ from the commercial and public sectors. It means for the first time we can now bring to bear the editorial effort required to bring all the legislation on legislation.gov.uk fully up to date. Our aim is to do that for all the Acts of Parliament by the end of 2015. Opening up data has proved an incredibly useful way of managing a large public database.
Our next ambition is to use open data and data analytics to start to work with the statute book as a whole – how it functions as a system of laws, how it is linked and is interconnected, how it’s changing over time and whether there are key trends or patterns. If we can find good patterns in the data, that might impact on how legislation is framed in future. These ideas are the essence of our ‘big data for law’ project, announced by David Willetts MP in February this year. Our aim is to give legal researchers access to easily downloadable data, alongside user-friendly tools they can use to interrogate that data. We also anticipate producing pre-packaged data analysis – an annual ‘census’ of key aspects of the statute book if you like – that can be used by researchers.
What is really encouraging is how these different activities are informing each other, with our research work contributing to delivering a better user experience for example, or usage data giving us new insights into how the system of laws fits together. We have come a long way, but it feels like we’re just at the start of something. These are exciting times.
Follow Legislation.gov.uk on Twitter: @Legislation