John Sheridan brings us up to date on the major strides being made to make legislation online more accessible and up to date
Access to legislation is crucial to the rule of law. Clear and effective laws are essential to the economy and society, yet people can often find legislation difficult. The statute book was not written to be read by the millions of people who now use it online through legislation.gov.uk, most of whom are not legally trained or qualified. Recent research, undertaken by legislation.gov.uk and the Office of Parliamentary Counsel, has been exploring how to make legislation better and how to present it in a more effective way.
It is not news that people want legislation that is simple, accessible and easy to comply with. Some of the reasons for legislation falling short of what users hope for are inescapable – legislation needs to be clear and precise to have the intended legal effect, but precision can be complicated. But, by working together, policy makers, drafters, legislators and publishers can do much to improve the accessibility of the law. That is the aim of the good law initiative (www.gov.uk/good-law), being led by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel – a partnership involving everyone with a role in making, shaping and presenting the law.
Over the last year, The National Archives, which delivers legislation.gov.uk, has been working closely with the Office of Parliamentary Counsel, to bring the drafters of legislation much closer to the users, to better understand and meet users' needs.
Our research shows that people largely struggle with legislation for three reasons. First, there is a lot of it and it interconnects in ways that are not always straightforward or obvious. The way legislation works is complex too – you need a good mental model for how it all works before you can understand what is going on. For example, not all elements of an Act come into force at the same time, or extend to different parts of the UK in a consistent way. Commencement Orders, which bring legislation into force, often contain transitional arrangements, invariably for a very good reason, but that is not always clear to a non-specialist reader. And then there is the legislation itself, with its schedules and sections and cross references, its precise legal language and provisions that are divided between primary and secondary legislation. Even lawyers struggle, and too often people are intimidated by legislation.
The Good Law initiative is an appeal to everyone interested in the making and publishing of law to come together with a shared objective of making legislation work well for the users of today and tomorrow.
Good law is law that is
"....We want .... to create confidence among users that legislation is for them..."
The web has transformed public access to legislation. The law is no longer just in the hands of those with access to a professional library. Today, you just do a Google search and you are a couple of clicks away from reading the text of a statute. Millions of people do just that every month. They are the users of legislation.gov.uk. The challenge now is to ensure the needs of this new audience are properly understood and addressed, to help users of the statute book to find their feet, so they have a fair chance of comprehending the legislation they are reading.
The National Archives, the organisation responsible for delivering legislation.gov.uk, has been working to develop a deeper understanding of user's experience with the legislation they find online.
We discovered that legislation.gov.uk is mostly used by people at work and for work purposes. The majority of users are not lawyers and therefore lack access to one of the commercial subscription services. They are drawn from a much wider group of people who need to know, cite or use legislation as part of their job. For example, imagine someone in the human resources department of a mid-size company, trying to understand the impact of the Pensions Act 2011 on the business. Of course they will read the guidance, but they also want to check the text of the legislation itself. That's a typical legislation.gov.uk user.
Our regular surveys and studies have given us a great insight into the needs of the non-legally trained user of legislation. Most people assume, when they access legislation, that it is current, in force and applies to where they live – which may often not be the case. As a consequence, legislation.gov.uk was carefully designed to present legislation on the web so that the content and status of each piece of legislation is clear and accessible.
The web site has been designed to provide additional information without cluttering the user interface for more experienced users. This has been done through the status bar which expands to list any unapplied effects and contextual help buttons across the screen. Giving people a 'latest available' version that shows how the legislation is now, is very important.
For advanced users there is a timeline which can be turned on to see how the legislation has changed.
Other advanced features include a display of the territorial extent of the legislation, showing where in the UK it is the law, as well as a number of advanced search facilities, such as search based on a particular extent or search for how legislation stood at a point in time.
When an Act has multiple sections, each with a different commencement date, or with prospective provisions, it is really hard for inexperienced users to get a clear picture of what is relevant to them. Simple visual elements really do help users to navigate some of the complications and pitfalls of legislation online.
The precise way legislation is named on legislation.gov.uk also means that people can now cite legislation much more accurately on the wider web. This phenomenon is most apparent on Twitter, where increasingly people use an exact legislation.gov.uk citation rather than a vague reference to the legislation document, when they want to talk about it.
Bringing together Drafters and Users
The good law initiative has provided an opportunity for The National Archives to work much more closely with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, who draft government Bills. Together we have been exploring how different drafting styles and different approaches to presentation can aid or improve comprehension.
Taking the principle of starting with needs to heart (users' needs not government needs), we have delved more deeply into possible options and strategies for improving legislation. Thousands of users of legislation.gov.uk took part in an online study, telephone interviews and one-to-one lab testing. It was the first time research of this type has been undertaken by the government, trying to discover which ways of drafting legislation and presenting it best help people comprehend the law. Participants were shown a short provision drafted in one style; shown alternative version(s) of the provision drafted in different style(s) and asked to express a preference for one style and to say why they preferred it. Users were then shown sections of legislation, and asked simple questions to check if their understanding of it accurately reflected the law.
Findings showed that people can really struggle to find their way around legislation. Many do not understand common terms such as "commencement" or "prescribed", or were puzzled by cross-references such as references to "subsection (1)" or "Schedule x makes provision about...".
These really practical insights have been invaluable. We now know much better what the pain points are. We are using the findings to develop new ways of presenting legislation on legislation.gov.uk, as well as developing better support materials to help users find their feet. This work is also impacting on drafting practice. The Office of the Parliamentary Counsel now have evidence to evolve their guidance and have been working through the findings in detail.
Updating the Statute Book
All users of legislation want the legislation they access from an official source to be up-to-date. The challenge is that Parliament passes legislation that makes, on average, around 15,000 changes to other pieces of legislation a year. It is a massive task just to keep up.
To bring the revised legislation on legislation.gov.uk up to date, The National Archives has an "expert participation programme", sharing responsibility for curating and managing the government's legislation database with others, inside and outside of government. We have also developed new editorial tools that streamline and automate our processes of updating legislation as much as possible, as well as allowing expert participants to work remotely. Everyone's work is double checked by reviewers before it is published on legislation.gov.uk, to ensure quality and accuracy.
The expert participation programme has already substantially increased the resources available to update legislation, and new editorial processes and tools have introduced significant efficiencies. The National Archives is working to bring all primary legislation on legislation.gov.uk up-to-date by the end of 2015.
Real Change and Improved Understanding
The Open Government Partnership UK National Action Plan 2013 to 2015
Commitment 10 in the action plan states that the UK government will:
John Sheridan is Head of Legislation Services at The National Archives, where he leads the team responsible for legislation.gov.uk
 This research (a combination of online survey, telephone interviews and one-to-one user testing, was conducted by Bunnyfoot Ltd on behalf of The National Archives and the
Office of the Parliamentary Counsel and undertaken between August 2012 and February 2013.