Online law database on the cards

Elizabeth Davidson reports

An exhaustive database of statute and case law could soon be launched on the Internet.

Civil servants have been working on plans for the database for the past six years and the government is almost ready to give the go-ahead to put it online.

However, it has not yet been decided whether or not the information will be provided free of charge. It had been intended to make the Statute Law Database available to government departments, and either to charge commercial rates for other users or to enter into a relationship with a commercial publisher which would charge users a fee for using the service.

In July the Society for Computers & Law (SCL) met with officials from HMSO, the privatised government publishing company, to discuss the plans.

The group is urging the government to make the service free. SCL vice-chair Neil Cameron has written to David Clark MP, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, saying: "The UK subject, for whom ignorance of the law is no excuse, should have free access to a complete library of up-to-date UK case and statute law."

Cameron, who described last month's meeting with HMSO representatives as "positive", condemned the previous government's plans to charge for the service as "contrary to the principle of open government".

SCL hopes a service will be set up which is similar to the one provided by the Australasian Legal Information Institute. The AustLII database provides the full texts of most Australian decisions and legislation and is used by more than 2,000 people every day.

The Statute Law Database is now nearing completion and is in a format suitable for immediate publication on the Internet.

Clark has suggested that it might be more appropriate for the task of providing a case law database to be left to commercial publishers.

He said a number of publishers were planning to extend their existing electronic publishing services by providing facilities for hypertext searching across the proposed database and their own collections of case law.

Clark added that a government group is considering how to make the Statute Law Database available. It is due to make its recommendations before the end of the summer.