Access to UK law denied

Access has been denied to a database containing the laws of the UK. Heather Brooke reports that on 2 August 2006, the government rolled out the second stage of a long-delayed project to make the consolidated law of parliament accessible to the people, but no free public access sites have been granted permission to view the current system and testers of the database - predominantly from commercial legal publishing firms - have been told not to share their login and password.

Small commercial legal publishers and democracy advocates are not happy. "It is appaling that a government feels it should sell the laws it makes to the general public who must obey them," said developer Francis Irving, who last month won two New Statesman new media awards for his web sites (the contribution to civic society award) and (advocacy award). "Because the DCA's data cannot be reproduced, it makes it impossible for anyone else to compete by providing new and innovative ways of accessing and learning the law."

Irving had hoped to create a free, user-friendly legal database to rival his previous successes. As such he filed Freedom of Information Act requests last year asking for the raw data held by the Department for Constitutional Affairs. Instead of thanking Irving for his interest, the DCA denied his request. Matthew Elliot, the chief executive of the Taxpayers' Alliance, is appalled by the government's response: "Any information collected by the government at taxpayers' expense should be freely available to the public. If private organisations are willing to collate information at no expense to the taxpayer, why on earth is the government spending money doing exactly the same thing?"

In the US, where information compiled at public expense by public officials is copyright free, the public has had access to consolidated law for decades.

Canada provides its citizens free access to parliamentary law. In the mid-90s the University of Montreal, which now operates the Canadian Legal Information Institute, set out to remove copyright limits on the distribution of law. It succeeded and the Reproduction of Federal Law Order was issued in late 1996.

Here in the UK, access to the Statute Law database is restricted by Crown Copyright which informs users that they should not reproduce or reuse any material from the database "until further guidance is issued."

Access denied to the laws that govern us (The Guardian, 17 August 2006)