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Journal of Law, Information and Science

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Quinton, Peter --- "Government Use of the Internet: The ACT LawNet" [1995] JlLawInfoSci 12; (1995) 6(2) Journal of Law, Information and Science 174

Government Use of the Internet: The ACT LawNet



In this article the author details the development of the ACT LawNet and how it has quickly expanded to become a major provider of legal information to people who can access the Internet. The author also makes a number of interesting comparisons with the early development of the printing press and concludes that the opportunity is now ripe for a new range of legal products.

1. A window of opportunity

Over the last 12 months it has become commonplace for commentators to argue that we stand at the beginning of a world wide revolution in the publication of and access to information. On 24 October 1995, there were an estimated 43,884,883 people and 220,793 World Wide Web sites within the Internet (http://

Some consider that the enhanced access to information through the Internet is a quantum leap, comparable to the development of the printing press. Yet having made that comparison, few are prepared to follow through that analogy. We sometimes forget that the advent of the printing press provoked the creation of an oppressive legal regime. In 1534, the Act of Supremacy imposed censorship and licensing which lasted for about 200 years. In 1557, the Stationers Guild was given a de facto monopoly on the publication of books. Many of the basic rules that predicate copyright law derive from these early developments. It is perhaps too easy to overlook the mechanisms that provoked the development of state control over the press. Insufficient regard is paid to the relationship between the establishment of the Royal Printer in 1485 and the subsequent state intervention in publishing.

Early involvement of the state in new communications technology provides a significant window of opportunity for the state. It is probable that the experience of the Royal Printer in the late 15th century provided the state with insights into the evolving technology; insights that led to draconian intervention in the emerging industry. It would be premature to dismiss such risks in relation to the Internet in this respect (some of the omens are sending mixed messages, see for example the US Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995). Today, another window of opportunity exists for Government: the Internet provides Government with an unparalleled opportunity to make the workings of Government more visible. Open Government is an important element of constructive community involvement in policy making. It is a cost effective way of giving the community access to the basic tools of democratic life: the legal rules.

2. Access to legal information

Fundamental to our legal system is the presumption that all people know the law. At present, the law neatly sidesteps issues raised by the question of access. It is an ancient and fundamental rule of the common law that all adults are presumed to know all of the law. Lord Ellenborough, C.J. bluntly explained the reason for this legal fiction in 1804:

"Every man must be taken to be cognisant of the law; otherwise there is no saying to what extent the excuse of ignorance might not be carried."

That the presumption is a legal fiction is capable of easy and conclusive proof. In some Australian jurisdictions it is not possible to access all the statutory law, let alone the common law. For example, the entire corpus of ACT laws has never been reprinted in one single collection; 16 Imperial laws remaining in force in the Territory can still only be found in old collections of Imperial Laws. Since self-government in the ACT there has been an active process of renewing and reorganising legislative material. The ACT Parliamentary Counsel's Office has published an impressive series of consolidations of laws and has placed all but a very few laws into electronic form.

Access to the current law has been materially improved through these organisational reforms, however community access to the law does not seem to have materially increased. The presumption of knowledge remains a legal fiction. An analysis of subscription sales of ACT legislation gives us some insights into the user for ACT legislative products (detailed figures are not available for over-the-counter sales but anecdotal evidence suggests a similar breakdown, perhaps with a slightly higher bias towards public sector purchases).

Nature of Client Acts Bills Bound Total


ACT Public Sector 44.71% 6.38% 39.19% 41.58%

Other Jurisdiction 19.45% 19.15% 21.62% 19.66%

Public Sector

Private Sector 17.92% 19.15% 9.46% 17.11%

Law Firms

Individuals 8.70% 27.66% 9.46% 10.04%

Universities/Libraries 7.51% 21.28% 17.57% 9.48%

Subscription Services 1.37% 6.38% 2.70% 1.84%

Accountants 0.34% 0.00% 0.00% 0.28%

Total 100.00% 100.00% 100.00% 100.00%

The major consumer of printed legislative products are not individuals within the community, nor even solicitors or barristers. In fact, the major consumer of printed legislative products is the state itself and neighbouring states. Within the state, the major consumers of such products are the authors of the law, judges and magistrates.

Since self-government, in addition to the organisational reforms progressed by Parliamentary Counsel, the Attorney General's Department has attempted to provide targeted legal information into the ACT community. For example, the quarterly newsletter, Reform News, was distributed widely to schools, colleges and universities in the ACT. Similarly, reform and review reports were produced in large print runs.

While each of these attempts made some inroads into the problem of a lack of relevant local legal information, these attempts all relied upon multiple publication and expensive distribution and maintenance processes. For example, the last issue of the ACT Reform News had a print run of about 1,500 copies. Taking into account all the costs including preparation, printing, distribution and maintenance costs, each copy of Reform News cost about $1.40. Random sampling of a number of target groups indicated that, while usage was reasonable high (60%), the newsletters themselves had a very short lifetime (effectively only being used once).

The inadequacy of printed material is not a new problem. It reflects the experience in other jurisdictions. Here and in other jurisdictions, government informational products are produced in small numbers - usually a fraction of one percent of the population. Even this small amount does not always find a way into the community as most government legal products are 'consumed' within government. The material that does find its way into the community, suffers from a lack of persistence - it can be quickly outdated (particularly if it is a discussion or research paper) and often flickers briefly before being lost. Some of those who have considered the issue are not surprised by these results. Some claim that this demonstrates a general disinterest in law and legal institutions. Others insist that legal products are only useful for legal technicians (lawyers, judges and public servants).

In the past it may have been possible to credit these views with a grain of truth. However to concede that law is the domain of the few is to marginalise the effectivity of our democratic institutions. An analysis of the use of legal information now published on the ACT LawNet suggests that the publication of legal information from a publicly accessible platform such as the Internet has created a new market of legal users led by the ordinary law person. Consequently, the Department considers that the development of legal resource material to inform ACT residents about significant features of the ACT legal system is an important access to law initiative. Simply put, there is no point making laws in the ACT if people don't know about them. Greater community knowledge of legal rules impacts in a positive fashion of many other programs (particularly in the areas of justice and policing).

3. The ACT LawNet

Early in 1995, in a chance discussion between Professor Eugene Clarke and the writer, the idea of the ACT Attorney-General's Department participating in a broad community information strategy was born. As a result, the ACT Attorney- General's Department (together with the Community Law Reform Committee) in conjunction with the University of Canberra undertook the task of publishing a wide range of legal material on the Internet.

Today the ACT LawNet can boast of being one of the largest Australian legal sites with more than 50Mb of legal material having been converted into world- wide-web (HTML) format. On 25 July 1995, when the ACT LawNet was officially launched, the information included: .

• indexes to ACT Law (both a general index developed by the Law Library and a detailed list to legislation impacting on business developed by the Law Reform Unit); .

• the complete set of reports and associated issues papers, discussion papers and research documents of the Community Law Reform Committee;

• all published reports under the ACT Law Review Program;

• a number of discussion papers and reports dealing with a number of reform issues published by the Department since Self-Government;

• a guide to the Department and corporate publications;

• a number of restatements of law (including the law of property, municipal and commercial restatements) - these had been produced for research purposes under the Review Program;

• explanatory memoranda; and

• a number of experimental expert systems - these are rules-based systems prepared for research purposes.

The information published on the LawNet includes most of the legal research papers prepared by the Department and the Community Law Reform Committee since self-government. In addition, it includes a number of restatements of ACT law, useful legal forms and information about the ACT legal system. The ACT Attorney- General, Mr Gary Humphries, has publicly announced that ACT legislation will be added to the Internet shortly.

TheLawNet ("") has been located on a world wide web server (the remote machine) within the University of Canberra. It is located at a remote machine away from the Department to ensure that Department computer systems retain a high security profile.

Because the Department operates from behind a firewall (a firewall is the term used to describe equipment and software which is supposed to prevent unauthorised access to data), we have had to overcome a number of technical problems in managing the information at the remote University site. An initial load of 1Mb of information was accomplished by hand delivering a disk with the relevant files. Initial attempts to directly manipulate data between the two sites failed because existing FTP software was frustrated by our firewall. For example, the program 'Fetch' could log onto the remote machine, but the remote machine was unable to send information about files at the remote site. Simply put, we were able to see the remote machine, but it was not able to see through our firewall.

The initial solution was simple, if tedious. We established a process whereby a local mirror (containing all the files making up the service) was established on a Departmental computer. We were given mail accounts at the remote machine and would send mail packages to those accounts containing the files to be loaded on the service. We would then Telnet to the remote machine and, after opening the mail and saving the files, organise the files and ensure that they had the appropriate permission levels. We would then test access to the new data from remote Internet connections.

Technology has now provided a more elegant solution for those who work from behind firewalls. New versions of FTP software now contain PSV (passive FTP) options that allow for simple file manipulation in the situation described above.

The style of publishing has undergone several revolutions. Initially, armed with very basic information about HTML publishing and the useful (if option sparse) RTFTOHTML converter, we prepared graphic rich screens of information. The initial results were almost unreadable and, in retrospect, as poor and inaccessible as early printing proofs. Since that time, through trial and error, we have developed a particular style and feel that, we hope, is as accessible, efficient, visually attractive and fast as any on the Internet.

4. Conclusion

Today, in conjunction with our mentors at the University of Canberra, we are actively seeking to identify additional opportunities for publishing legal information onto the Internet.

Publication of material on the Internet is progressively deliver our material to a larger audience. Initially the ACT LawNet acquired about 30 new users per day. However, within a month of its release, more people had accessed the Community Law Reform Report on Residential Tenancies than we had published hard copy reports. By 18/9/95, we had recorded more than 10,000 separate accesses to the LawNet, with the number of accesses continuing to increase. At the time of writing this paper, there had been more than 25,000 accesses.

Utilising the ACT LawNet, we are exploring a series of new legal products that seem to offer a number of exciting possibilities in relation to access to law. Applying the methodology developed for rules based systems, we have developed a simple "decision support" system giving the user interactive access to complex systems of law. A number of earlier experimental systems are available from the ACT LawNet. On the basis of these early systems, the ACT is now working with the Office of Financial Management on translating the Financial Directions into a similar format.

Having entered a publishing venture, we now find ourselves at a point where we need to start to reconsider the way we have traditionally done business. A range of new legal products and services have suddenly become available. On the basis of this experience, I would like to think that, unlike the Royal Printer in the late fifteenth century, we have stepped through the right window of opportunity. Time will tell.

[*] Director, Law Reform Unit, Canberra.

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