Law News gets the heads up on official electronic legislation

David Noble                 Readers may be able to relate to this scenario – you look up an act on the New Zealand Legislation website in a hurry, perhaps on route to court, only to read (and remember) the disclaimer that “the electronic versions of legislation on this website, and any legislation printed from this website, have no official status and should not be relied on as the authoritative text”. Not to mention the subsequent frustration of then having to race away and locate a printed statute booklet (and check it is current), or try to photocopy some dusty old volume that does not even fit on the photocopier properly.

 

Well those days will soon be in the past, as the New Zealand Legislation website becomes in January 2014 a one-stop online shop of official, free, electronic versions of New Zealand statutes and legislative instruments (LIs). Law News spoke to Chief Parliamentary Counsel, David Noble, from the Parliamentary Counsel Office about official online legislation, what it means for New Zealanders, how they will be able to use it, and what is next from here.

What does “official” mean?

Section 18 of the Legislation Act 2012 states: “An official version of legislation as originally enacted or made is taken to correctly set out the text of
the legislation”.

Until now, only legislation printed and published by the Parliamentary Counsel Office (or PCO - New Zealand’s law drafting and publication office) or the New Zealand Government has been “official”. Only these PCO-published hard copies have been able to be relied upon in court as correctly stating the law without any further proof of their accuracy.

What will be available from January 2014?

However, from 6 January 2014 onwards, the Chief Parliamentary Counsel will issue official electronic legislation via the New Zealand Legislation website (www.legislation.govt.nz).

Official electronic versions of legislation will be available in PDF format displaying the New Zealand coat of arms (and looking for all intents and purposes exactly like the hard copy versions readers will be familiar with). Printouts of official PDFs will be free of charge and also “official”. Users will be able to view, print and rely on the following as official:

  • every act and legislative instrument (LI) enacted or made since 2008;
  • every reprint (subsequent version) of those acts and LIs;
  • the latest version of all principal (i.e. not amendment) acts and LIs enacted or made between 1931 and 2007, if still in force (and some earlier reprints); and
  • the latest versions of some pre-1931 Acts, e.g. the Judicature Act 1908 and Sale of Goods Act 1908 (and some earlier reprints).

All current statutes will be able to be relied upon for complete accuracy with confidence, due to the thorough checking process the text has been through. This will make for a huge saving of time and effort for practitioners, particularly those involved in court proceedings – as they will no longer need to rely on out-of-date printed legislation when filing court papers.

As well as the ability to print documents free of charge, there will be a new “print on demand” function, allowing users to order a commercially printed copy of any act, LI, bill or supplementary order paper on the website, via a “shopping cart” system. Web feeds are available to alert users to updates every time a document is amended.

Hard work behind the scenes

The project, known as “Public Access to Legislation” (PAL), took until 2008 to deliver both the website and drafting systems successfully. Following that (at times, troubled) gestation, the latest stage, to make the online legislation official, has been relatively quick at six years.

Even finding the source material, from which to “back-capture” text and compile the new official versions, was not an easy process. In years gone by, the PCO would send the text of statutes to the Government Printing Office (GPO) in WordPerfect. The GPO would then format this and produce the printed statutes. When the GPO was later sold, the intellectual property from which the printed statutes were drawn was effectively lost.

So the primary source material for what is now online came from the old Brookers’ electronic statutes database (which readers may remember using in days gone by). However, the PCO could not be sure that third party-sourced material was entirely reliable, given that many statutes have their origins decades ago, and may have been through innumerable amendments and re-printings since then.

Some 85,000 pages of text in the original database therefore needed to be checked and re-checked for accuracy. The only exception to checking by the PCO are the approximately 3800 pages of material associated with the Income Tax Act, which due to their specialist nature, were farmed out to the
Inland Revenue.

A team of four carried out this onerous task– comparing the original text, checking every amendment made to it, adding history notes, and updating its format. They worked backwards from 2007 to 1931 to check through the entire stock of reprinted statutes. In this way, while they got the heavy lifting over and done with first, the sting in the tail was that the older statutes were much more “Edwardian” in their language and layout. Mr Noble describes it as “painstaking work, looking at every word”.

An example of the care needed in this process occurred when a team member came across a paragraph of a subsection that appeared in reprints of a particular statute, but not in the original version – leading the team to query whether the paragraph had ever actually been enacted, or whether it had erroneously been sitting on the statute books for many years. Detective work eventually uncovered that the paragraph was part of the bill which was passed, but the first printing had missed it out, an error which later printings had rectified.

Mr Noble and his team are now “as confident as they can be” that the end products are accurate. All documents have been checked twice and audited to pick up any remaining errors, even to the extent of incorrect formatting or spacing.

Leading the way

While the website interface and online documents will be all most people see and use, Mr Noble describes this as only the “tip of the iceberg”. Underlying the website are sophisticated editing and drafting tools and associated software, resulting in a unified drafting process beginning in Parliament and ending with publication on the website.

Like an engineering project, tolerances in the software needed to be within millimetres (as it were), for the end result “couldn’t just be good enough – it needed to be fabulous”.

It seems as though this is what the PCO has achieved. Mr Noble is involved with the Commonwealth Association of Legislative Counsel, and based on his observations of other Commonwealth member country initiatives and discussions with his international colleagues, he is confident that New Zealand is leading the way in terms of public access to official and accurate
public legislation.

While other countries have attempted similar projects, none have achieved anything so comprehensive in terms of the underlying drafting and software systems. Mr Noble predicts that other countries will be looking to us and to the PCO’s intellectual property in the project as inspiration for what could be done in their own jurisdictions.

Where to from here?

Mr Noble says he is very proud of the overall result his team has achieved: “We’ve given New Zealanders access to their legislation, in a form that’s official, authoritative, up to date, and easy to use (or as easy as legislation can be!)”.

Once the website is live (and the team behind it have had the chance to breathe a huge sigh of relief!), the PCO is keen find out how people are using the system, and what functionality they would like to see in the future. Training will be offered to law librarians and public librarians to ensure that both they (and the members of the profession or public whom they may be assisting) can get the best out of the new database, and user groups will be set up with representatives from the profession and the judiciary.

In spite of recent speed bumps in the drive to move our courts towards a more electronic and paperless system, the ultimate intention is to interlink the website with the “E-Committee” and “Virtual House” initiatives. The website will also be of use to those courts which already make use of technology in their courtrooms (such as the registry of the Court of Appeal, which accepts electronic filing). There may also be scope to link the website into online judicial decisions, for example if a judgment made available online cites section 22 of a particular statute, a hyperlink in the text can take you straight to the text applicable at the relevant time.

Other possible future enhancements may include a mobile device-friendly version of website, and a move to A4 publishing for new statutes, rather than the somewhat awkward B5 size many of us are familiar with. This writer recalls hours spent as a law clerk trying to photocopy dusty and unwieldy old statute volumes, with pieces of white cardboard around the edges of the book to try and eliminate unsightly black patches in preparation for court!

No doubt many others will breathe a similar sigh of relief that such struggles will be in the past, and that accessing official, clean and reliable versions of statutes will be as easy as clicking your mouse. One does wonder though what law clerks are now going to do to occupy their time!  

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