Sunday, 9 March 2014

www.legislation.gov.uk

There is a principle that we should actually know the law, at least as it applies to us. "Ignorance [of the law] is no defence". But there is now so much legislation that this is proving very hard. Indeed, I read that some tax laws are so complex they are challenged on the basis that nobody, not even an expert, could know the law.

Obviously some of the time there are specific complex or far reaching laws that spawn a whole set of useful FAQs, guides, and even leaflets and adverts to ensure people are aware of the new legislation. Even so, at the end of the day, the actual Acts and Statutory Instruments that support them are the starting point for understanding the law that applies to us all.

There is now, and for some years, a very useful site. Anyone reading my blog will have seen links to the site (at top of every page and in many posts). It is www.legislation.gov.uk. It is really really useful.

In order to read and understand legislation, you have to be a pedant and have some legal training. I fail at the latter, but I can work my way around a lot of it with no problem. Occasionally some of it is pretty simple.

The nice thing is that, for Acts of Parliament (i.e. the big laws) they not only show the acts but also the amendments as they happen (or soon after). They even flag up pending amendments. This is quite important as, obviously, it is the current version of a law that applies to us all. I have had people confidently quote The Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act 1998 not realising that fixed penalties were added in 2002.

Unfortunately, from what I can see, some types of legislation such as mere "Regulations", usually done by Statutory Instruments, are not updated on the web site. I have not yet found the description of why this is, of even if that is the rule.

So, for example, if you look up The Value Added Tax Regulations 1995 you get a message "Status: This is the original version (as it was originally made). This item of legislation is currently only available in its original format."

This is subtle, and easily missed. It means that one can be shouting at someone in a shop based on outdated information (e.g. Argos). Before I make a spectacle of myself I like to check I am actually right, and feel somewhat embarrassed that I made a minor error. In this instance the requirement for a full VAT receipt was £250 not £100. I was still right, in that the order slip did not meet the requirements of a simplified receipt, and Argos did lots wrong (issuing a credit note!) but I do not like to make mistakes like that in the first place.

So, I wonder, why do they not update SIs, and how do we convince them to do it?

In the mean time I have found the changes search that allowed me to check all changes to section 16 of that regulation quite quickly. Given they already file all of this, one wonders why they don't actually update the web site with those changes.

Anyway, I would recommend www.legislation.gov.uk highly to anyone that wants to check facts.

3 comments:

  1. There also seems to be some 2013 regulations that have not updated the primary legislation yet. They're pretty hard to read without actually having a copy of the act open on the neighbouring screen.

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  2. Careful on using Legislation.gov; Law lecturers and tutors are fond of using it as a trap.

    The site, shockingly, isn't updated regularly enough. I know in one Open University course there is one specific exercise that is built in such a way that if you use legislation.gov you will get the wrong answer - you will only get the right answer by using Westlaw, or LexisNexis as these are updated faster.

    It is absolutely shocking that legislation.gov lags behind these in my view, and against the principle of the law being open and accessible to all.

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  3. We and the likes of Butterworths (Lexis Nexis) have been making a business out of this (providing current and historic versions) of legislation for decades. The problem the legislation.gov.uk service has is the trawl back needed to get thing up to date. It's much easier for a new piece of legislation, to keep it updated in the future, clearly, but even then the effort in doing that has to weighed up against the arguably more important but older legislation.

    It's a multi-agency effort but last time we spoke to the Ministry of Justice about this they were trying to crowd-source the updating amongst legal professionals using simple XML based tools. They'd do it out of the goodness of their own heart as they came across stuff. Nice idea, but I think you can see where the flaw is.

    In truth these things have to be dome by legal and para-legal or at the very least legally-aware people because the wording of amended legislation is by no means clearcut.

    If we were paid £1 for every time we've found a drafting error in legislation that makes no sense. We'd have £26.33 by now. Drafting is not an exact science and prone to human error.

    So in essence, nice idea but the VAST effort required means this is going to be slow progress.

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