The SLD Public Pilot

August 18, 2006

I once carried the instruments on stage for Fleetwood Mac; I have served drinks to Tony Christie; I have had drinks with Princess Di; I have acted on the same stage as Sir Ian McKellen and I have rubbed shoulders with more judges than you can shake a stick at. From my earliest days (apparently I was asleep in my cot when Sir Tom Finney was fitting our sink), my life has been studded with celebrity encounters and only my natural reticence has made me shun the desperate attempts by Hello, Heat and the Calne Town Crier to get me to spill the beans. So I guess I was a natural choice when suitable candidates were sought to be introduced to the Greta Garbo of information databases, the Statute Law Database. They needed someone who could be relied upon not to be in awe of the legend and who would not be intimidated by its fame but who could be trusted not to dish the dirt. Sadly, their trust was misplaced – not only I am giddy by dint of my connection with this superstar, I can keep the inside story to myself no longer and feel bound to share the SLD’s secrets with you.


A Little History


There has been talk of the Statute Law Database for so long that I suspect that there are SCL members who are too young to have heard about it. It has been 25 years in the making. I think I first predicted its imminent arrival in 1996, or perhaps it was 1896, but talk of its preparation goes back even further. There were various sightings of a development version in 1998 (I swear I saw it one day but it was gone the next). There were impassioned arguments about exactly how it should be made available to the public as long ago as 1999. It stuttered to a near completion – and then went back several steps so as to be revised and become an Internet-based system, but seemed to have staggered backwards into oblivion.


Then reports came through last year that it was about to emerge. The legal database paparazzi gathered their resources for the big day, and then slunk away again disappointed.


Finally, we heard that it was to be made available for government lawyers and the like in June. Indeed, it did make its appearance for them and, we are told, was successfully launched. Now there is a public pilot, researching its effectiveness and operability.


First Impressions


My first impression of the SLD was that it was like Marilyn Monroe (I am clinging to my theme by my fingertips) – it was big and fast and dumb in unexpected places. Like Marilyn it had all you could possibly want, and more than you could probably cope with, and was endlessly fascinating to the point that it would be easy to neglect your more pressing duties. But like Marilyn it came in a slightly outdated format.


My criteria for evaluation, listed before I made its acquaintance, were:


·                     How up to date is it?


·                     How well does it deal with commencement issues


·                     How easy is it to cross-reference? Are links clear?


·                     How fast is it?


·                     Are there any security issues?


·                     How does it compare to LNUK or Westlaw?


The introduction to the pilot came with an initial script, with a series of searches and questions on their effectiveness and, principally, on the ease of understanding of the information which was retrieved. I had some minor issues with the choices of wording used and felt that the site allowed itself too much technical language. For example, I felt the term ‘Attributes’ to describe the summary of extent, implementation date(s) and powers was a strange choice. But I was warming to the SLD until I came to Exercise 5 in the initial script, which asked me to find the Road Traffic (NHS Charges) Act 1999. It was not hard to find the Act but what became clear, although only after another three or four clicks, was that all the relevant provisions had been repealed by the Health and Social Care (Community Health and Standards) Act 2003. My contemporaneous note reads: ‘highlights fundamental flaw – major repeal and takes too long to reveal it’.


In truth, I was astonished by what had been revealed in Exercise 5. No database of legislation is ever up to date – for example, it took LNUK many months to get the various wide-ranging amendments in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 fully embedded into their displayed legislation – but this was not dealing with a series of labyrinthine changes. I could not understand how it was possible to take nearly three years to take account of a provision that repealed the whole Act.


Having completed the exercises in the script, my immediate focus was on currency. How up to date is this database? Is it any use at all if you have to find the provision and then do research over three years to update it yourself? I even found myself wondering if the SLD had been released too hastily – those of you have read my editorials over the years will appreciate the irony.


I was disappointed – this was not just a Marilyn with flaws, I felt, it was a drag queen.


Mature Reflection


The reality is that it is not the database that is fundamentally flawed, it was my initial assessment of it. There was a point where the only credit I was inclined to give the people at the Statutory Publications Office was for illuminating the ‘flaw’ so brightly by including the NHS Charges item in the exercises. But now I have come to the view that they have created something that deserves praise and will, if there is any justice, win numerous prizes.


Why the turnaround? Let me be clear, the database needs to be brought up to date rapidly if it is to be of any use to anyone, whether government lawyers or the general public. It is clear that the SPO know that and are doing their best to achieve it – I suspect that they need a massive blast of external resources to get there but perhaps they know better. They also need better prioritising; my guess is that taking account of the repeal in the NHS Charges instance that was highlighted is 15 minutes work for a skilled operator and I am sure that that 15 minutes could have been found by leaving a demanding and difficult amendment a little longer.


But the ‘flaw’ is fixable (it is just a matter of resources) and currency was just one of the items on my assessment list. In most respects, the site is effective. The actual legislation revealed was displayed quickly and, despite some reservations about the clutter of the various tags used, was clear enough. Links were fine – although there were not as many of them as I would have liked. The treatment of commencement confused me for a while but appeared to be right and comprehensible; it is a confusing area anyway – where complex commencement provisions apply then the only ones not confused are those who have understood nothing. I found no inaccuracies, although I would not have expected to find any in the brief period of testing.


Even the thought of making a comparison with premium services from LNUK and Westlaw may seem unfair to some but it is not ridiculous; I have long preferred the opsi legislation site to either for new Acts or for locating SIs. The SLD would not get the nod over either of the legal publishers’ sites but that is principally because it is not as well updated and because I was unfamiliar with aspects of it. But the SLD has a massive plus, or potential plus, it is likely to be free – or at least aspects of it are likely to be free for most people in many circumstances. If the chasm in updating standards is not closed then even ‘free’ will be too expensive for most lawyers, but in all other respects it stands up well for what it is.


It is that last phrase that is really key. Updating defects aside, the SLD does just what it is supposed to do. It is not an integrated suite of material, providing answers to lawyers’ questions. It is not a consumer-friendly statement of the law. It is the legislation in the raw.


In my initial excitement at the arrival of the SLD, after so many delays and so much anticipation, I had somehow lost sight of the fact that it is a working tool for government lawyers. We do not expect our Court of Appeal judges to stoop to provide easily digestible judgments – we accept that the raw material of law is difficult stuff to handle. By the same token, we should not expect the SLD to mould itself to fit with the requirements of publishers, lawyers in practice or the general public. All are capable of adapting to deal with the raw material – and that is especially true of the general public when they are on a mission to grapple with the law. Of course the SLD should not obfuscate by the unnecessary use of jargon or turns of phrase that will fox the majority but have no balancing advantages (it uses the phrase ‘the statute book’ on its home page in an attempt to explain itself but I fear few people know what that phrase means) and it should not turn its back on widely accepted display conventions (it neglects one almost universally accepted linking convention). Some aspects of linking are some way behind the AustLII-style formatting and I’d like to hear that they have at least considered the option of input from the experts at BAILII. But, beyond that, the SLD should go its own way and let people accept it for what it is – Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I am what I am’ should be its theme tune.




For me the key test was whether I would happily link to the SLD from one of the legal content articles that I post on the SCL site or on one of the other sites on which I work. I had some reservations because of the updating backlog (and, as Nick Holmes has pointed out to me, the SLD’s url format is anything but transparent for linkers), but I then asked myself a simple question: ‘What’s the alternative site?’ – nine times out of ten, there isn’t one.


The fact that the commercial strategy for the service remains uncertain is a cause for concern (and a trifle astonishing after all this time). The SPO is required by the Treasury to identify options for generating revenue to assist in lowering the cost to the public purse of developing and operating the service. The expectation is that legal publishers and the like will be made to contribute but that the general public and worthy organisations will have free access. I and others have devoted many pages of this magazine to the arguments in favour of favouring free access and I do not have space to repeat them now but in May 1998, in a lengthy editorial, I wrote that the arguments for restricting access, centring on the need for lawyers to pay for their tools and the need to stop legal publishers exploiting it, ‘are but pennyweights when set against the advantages that can and will flow from free access’. I have not altered that view.


So my conclusion is that in most respects the SLD is a good site. It is not a glamorous star even though, in terms of magnitude and accuracy, it is wonderful. Its full potential may depend on its commercial model and on its willingness to work with BAILII, but even half its potential is impressive. Above all, it is so much better than nothing, which is what we have at the moment. I pay tribute to Tony Hopkins and his team at the SPO and look forward enthusiastically to the day when it becomes generally available.