Can technology fix the Statute Book?

When is a law not a law? When it’s obsolete.

Okay, so that wasn’t the best joke in history but it does explain something about our legal system. By “obsolete” I mean laws that are unused and not useful, but still in force like a bear trap left somewhere in the thickets and long forgotten by the man who put it there. The first attempt to scientifically examine these “sleeping statutes” was the Repeal of Obsolete Statutes Act 1856 which repealed over a hundred “obsolete laws”. That process of examining and systemising our legal system is carried out by the Law Commission, an independent organisation created by the Law Commissions Act 1965 and charged by s 3 to “to take and keep under review all the law with which they are respectively concerned with a view to its systematic development and reform, including in particular… the repeal of obsolete and unnecessary enactments, the reduction of the number of separate enactments and generally the simplification and modernisation of the law”.

So far so good, right? But in the digital age surely we can help the brains trust behind the Law Commission out with a little bit of technology? Here are the three ways we would freshen up the statute book.

 Tagging laws for freshness

Old law isn’t necessarily bad law (Magna Carta is 800 years old), but how can you be sure when something is thirty years old and may have been amended in the meanwhile. You can certainly keep track of the amendments over time (and it’s the major selling point of subscription based services like LexisLibrary) but why not also stamp each law with a statement of when it was last reviewed by an expert? Why not even put a note on each section to say when it will be next reviewed by a specialist? Just like the inspection list on the back of a fire extinguisher, it’s good to know that you can rely on an Act in an emergency.

 Thematic index for each section

As statutes get longer and longer, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to filter them so you can see just the sections with relevance to your practice area? The Companies Act 2006, the Law of Property Act 1925 and the Localism Act 2011 all touch some tangent of our personal and professional lives but you might never know how until you fall foul of it. With invisible HTML scripting and other mark-ups, it is perfectly possible to have this as a layer of meta-data for those who want the functionality without disfiguring it for the person who wishes to read from beginning to end.

 Spider diagram the linked sections

How do you tell the most and least important parts of a statute? Well one way is colour-coding depending on cross-references back, but as we’re all fans of post-it notes and highlighters here, something that replicated the mind-map would be a bigger help for the busy lawyer looking for the lines of power and weakness between statutes. Some jurisdictions put more weight on a single, codified, Uniform Model Law by topic or Code Civil but over here we know we just need to know which bits are referenced by earlier and later laws to save time and potential embarrassment. You would also be able to see which bits of ‘code’ are still active and which have become well meaning ‘junk’ that might need reviewing or removing.

To make the statute book fresh and accessible – to lawyers and also the public – we need tools like this that cut down the thinking time to present people with workable options and analysis. Once we relied on humans – paralegals and personal support lawyers – to do this, but one day soon? I await the coming of the statutory interpretation task wizard and the Parliamentary Counsel hive-mind.

Filed Under: Legal Services

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