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Making Victoria a model jurisdiction for free access to law
You are here: AustLII >> Research Projects >> 2009 >> Making Victoria a model jurisdiction for free access to law
Making Victoria a model jurisdiction for free access to law
The Legal Services Board of Victoria has provided grant of $838,927 over a three year period to the Australasian Legal Information Institute to help make Victoria a model jurisdiction for free access to law. The announcement of the grant by Victoria’s Deputy Premier and Attorney-General Rob Hulls, and AustLII’s Media Release, set out details of the grant. This document details the elements of model jurisdiction project, as set out in the funding application in mid-2008. Progress on the project since then may be seen on AustLII’s Victorian Law Resources page. The first round of major improvements is intended to be completed by December 2009.
Purpose of the project
AustLII already provides databases of the basic resources for Victorian law, as illustrated on the ‘Victorian Resources’ page <http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/vic/> shown below (as at mid-2008). However, there are very significant limitations in the coverage and quality of these resources: decisions from only three of twelve current Victorian Courts and Tribunals are included; there is little historical depth to these case databases; the legislation has not been converted to as high a quality presentation as for other jurisdictions; only current legislation is provided, without the more sophisticated point-in-time format allowing legislation to be retrieved as at a certain date; the searches over non-AustLII websites of Victorian law do not yet work well enough; and we do no not have tables of parallel citations of Victorian cases, so that there is relatively little hypertext linking to cases compared with what could be achieved. Altogether, it is a serviceable set of databases, but sub-optimal due to no substantial resources having been available to build an initial comprehensive set of resources.
AustLII’s ‘Victorian Resources’ page <http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/vic/> as at application
Despite these limitations, AustLII’s Victorian Resources receive very significant usage, so many people in the community rely upon them, including the general public, students, academics, government and legal practitioners. Details of Victorian usage of AustLII is included in section 4 below. Any increase in the quality of these resources can be expected to have an impact on the public’s understanding of Victorian law, and the quality of services provided by the Victorian legal profession.
A main aim of this project is to comprehensively expand the scope of Victorian legal materials (decisions, legislation and interpretative materials) available for free access. This will involve a systematic investigation into the availability of all Victorian sources of law (including prioritising historical sources), collection and conversion of new materials, and expanding existing collections. We will explain why the best locations for a comprehensive research facility for Victorian law is the Australasian Legal Information Institute (AustLII), and how that can be achieved. The project’s proposals in relation to each of the three main types of content are now detailed:
1 Court and Tribunal Decisions
AustLII already has strong working relationships with the largest Victorian courts and tribunals. The official court sites for the Victorian Supreme Court and VCAT currently link to AustLII as their publicly available repository for decisions. AustLII also includes decisions of the Mental Health Review Board and case reports of the Privacy Commissioner. Supreme Court decisions on AustLII date only from 1994 with VCAT decisions starting from the formation of the Tribunal in 1998 (plus some earlier decisions of its precursor bodies).
Through this project, decisions of all other Victorian courts and Tribunals will be included in AustLII, subject to the approval of those Courts and Tribunals, and processes will be implemented to provide ongoing up-to-date access. Victoria will then have a comprehensive research system for current case law. In most cases we expect that only selected decisions will be considered as valuable for public access because of their value as precedents or examples, and in some cases this will only be possible after a process of anonymisation. Selected decisions of the County Court are available in an online decisions database of approximately 1000 decisions (http://www.countycourt.vic.gov.au/), and the Court has its own processes of assessing suitability for publication. This database needs to be republished on AustLII (assuming the Court’s permission) as a start toward a comprehensive Victorian case law search.
1.1 Additional case law databases
Decisions of the following nine additional Victorian Courts and Tribunals are not currently available on AustLII and not currently provided by any of these Courts and Tribunals:
Subject to the above comments concerning selectivity and anonymisation it would be valuable to make accessible important decisions from all of these Courts and Tribunals, and to include them on AustLII. The number of significant precedent or exemplar decisions is likely to be modest, but they will be of importance to those sectors of the Victorian community who they affect, and their representatives. The fact that there are ten current Courts, Tribunals, or Court divisions whose decisions are not searchable from AustLII’s Victorian Resources page demonstrates how much work is still to be done in creating a comprehensive search facility for Victorian case law.
1.2 Case finding and citation aids
Case finding and referencing aids to Victorian cases will be extended and improved. This will include the development of a comprehensive citator for Victorian case materials, drawing on AustLII’s research from a current Australian Research Council project (Improving Online Case Law) in which VCAT is one of the industry partners. This project will involve the launch by AustLII of a free access citation service (InCite) which among other things will identify any case available for free access irrespective of the citation used to identify it, as well as citations of those cases, articles etc that have subsequently cited it (’noteups’) with links to those cases where available.
As a result of this proposed Victorian project, Victorian content will be a priority in the development of InCite, with the result that research on Victorian law will become easier and more comprehensive.
1.3 Historical decisions
This project will identify those decisions of Victorian Courts and Tribunals prior to 1994 (in the case of the Supreme Court) or other current date of availability which are of continuing importance to practitioners, law teachers or researchers, and aim to make as many of them as possible available for free access via AustLII’s Victorian Resources. Inclusion in an AustLII database will also mean that all cases, law reform reports or articles citing those cases will automatically have hypertext links created to the case reports.
A number of processes will be used to identify the most important cases for this purpose:
This research will give us an objective target list of Victorian decisions of continuing importance. We will then implement a prioritised process of inclusion of decisions of the greatest importance, similar to a process recently undertaken by BAILII concerning historical decisions of UK courts, and by CANLII concerning the Courts of Ontario. This will include:
There is thus the potential to commence immediately on the development of a database of Victorian decisions of continuing historical importance, while discussing with publishers and the Courts cooperation on the question of developing such a database in relation to more recent (pre-1994) decisions. This part of the project will be ongoing throughout the three years.
2 Legislation and forms
The legislation databases currently available on AustLII are produced from materials maintained by the Office of the Chief Parliamentary Counsel (OCPC) and the Victorian Parliament. It is proposed that AustLII will further develop its relationships with these bodies and explore the potential for improvements to existing legislative databases. Some improvements can be made by changes to AustLII’s mark-up software to ensure that it better handles variations in Victorian legislative data (particularly in relation to forms), and other improvements will depend upon collaboration with the OCPC.
A major improvement involving provisions of a completely new database will be that AustLII's point-in-time software and technology will be used to produce a point-in-time version of Victorian legislation. AustLII has developed through an ARC research project a generic method of producing point-in-time legislative resources (see <http://portsea.austlii.edu.au/pit/>), but has not had the resources to apply this to Victorian legislation, with such modifications as are necessary to deal with the differences between Victorian data and that from other jurisdictions.
Although AustLII does provide Bills (and their Explanatory Memoranda) as well as current Acts and Regulations, there is not yet adequate cross-referencing to enable the corresponding Act, Bill, historical versions of an Act, Regulations made under it, and their Explanatory Memoranda, to be correlated so that users can readily move from one to the other. As an extension of AustLII’s data mining research, we will investigate whether a page can be generated for each Act linking all these items.
Because Victorian Courts often make decisions concerning Commonwealth legislation, enhancements to that legislation (such as point-in-time presentation), consistent with what will be done with Victorian legislation, will also be explored. The coordination of Victorian and Commonwealth materials is needed for a fully-comprehensive system of value to Victorian lawyers and the public.
2.2 Parliamentary documents concerning legislation
The Victorian Parliament's Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee issues reports on every bill that comes before the Parliament <http://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/sarc/Bills_index.htm>, including correspondence it receives from Ministers in relation to bills. Its role has been broadened recently with the introduction of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, so that the reports also include an analysis of human rights issues raised by every bill. Under Victorian's Interpretation of Legislation Act, such reports can be referred to in courts in interpreting legislation. It would be of considerable value if AustLII could include such a database, particularly given the new role of the Committee.
In addition, ‘statements of compatibility’ now accompany every Victorian bill (and have since 2007), spelling out how the bill is compatible with human rights. Like Explanatory Memoranda they are produced by the Minister who introduces the bill, and are included directly into Hansard before the second reading speech. They are now also important to statutory interpretation.
AustLII already includes a database of Victorian Bills Explanatory Memoranda, but in light of these recent Victorian developments this gives an incomplete guide to interpretation without the database of the Committee’s reports and the ‘statements of compatibility’. For these guides to interpretation to be of full value to the public and the profession (or even known to them), they must be searchable together with the Act and the Bill, and linked to them. AustLII is best placed to provide such a facility.
2.3 Forms including Court Forms
A comprehensive collection of court (and other) forms of relevance to Victorian practitioners and the Victorian public will be developed (separate from the Acts, Regulations etc specifying the forms) and systems put into place to keep this up-to-date. Such a database is of particular interest to the Law Institute of Victoria, which first raised the need for improvements to the forms provided in current online legislation (on AustLII and elsewhere) with AustLII in 2007. Availability of accurate and usable forms online is also of great value and importance to all members of the public who are attempting to do legal work on their own behalf, including (in relation to Court forms) self-represented litigants.
First it will be necessary to ensure that all AustLII conversions of Victorian legislation are properly converting forms within the Acts and Regulations themselves, because forms and schedules are the most problem-prone aspects of legislation. Second, software will be developed to automatically extract all forms from Victorian legislation and re-format it so that it can be more conveniently used by word processing programs. Third, a database of such forms will be provided with various searching and browsing mechanisms to allow a useable copy of relevant forms to be easily found.
3 Sources of interpretation, reform and advice
In addition to the primary materials of legislation and case law, AustLII’s Victorian Resources will be enhanced to include more databases of materials interpreting Victorian law.
3.1 Law Reform
AustLII currently provides access to a limited number of reports of the Victorian Law Reform Commission (from 2002-2006 as provided by the VLRC). As part of the project it is proposed to examine the possibility of digitising all available reports and discussion papers of the Commission, and to institute processes for rapid updating of new law reform materials. Availability of similar resources, such as the reports of previous law reform bodies in Victoria and Royal Commissions, will be investigated. Where possible such resources will be made freely available via AustLII.
3.2 Law Journals
AustLII has obtained funding from Australian Research Council’s infrastructure fund to develop an ‘Australian Legal Scholarship Library’ (2008-09), involving digitising as many Australian law journals as possible, with complete historical coverage where possible. Cooperation with Victorian Law Schools will therefore result in a significant increase in scholarship about Victorian law being included on AustLII. An application for funds before the LSB from the Law Institute will also involve back-capture and publication on AustLII of the Law Institute of Victoria Journal.
As part of this proposal, a ‘virtual database’ will be included on AustLII’s Victorian Resources page which makes searchable there all law journal articles concerning Victorian law which appear in any of the more than 50 law journals already on AustLII (including those mentioned above).
3.3 Other Materials including Plain English Guides
Sources of plain English guides to Victorian law will be investigated. A centralised searchable collection will be produced. A non-exhaustive list of possible sources is available on AustLII’s ‘Community Legal Information - Victoria’ Catalog page <http://www.worldlii.org/catalog/2556.html> but requires updating. To develop a comprehensive community legal information service is beyond the scope of this project, but we will investigate low-cost methods of aggregating such advice into more usable form as part of comprehensive Victorian Resources. It is difficult to assess in advance what other secondary materials of most value will be identified, but the intention is that those equivalent in value to plain English guides to the law, even if more technically oriented, will be included wherever possible. It is possible that a collection of valuable commentaries on aspects of Victorian law may be available for collection into a free access database, from both public sector and private sector sources, but the necessary enquiries have never been made to establish whether this is so.
4 Search facility enhancements and other technical improvements
AustLII’s Victorian Resources page <http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/vic/> already provides a single search location for all of its Victorian materials. As well as the searches over Victorian databases on AustLII, this facility also allows browsing and searching of other legal materials on the Internet which are not on AustLII. As a result of this project, the Victorian Resources page will become the ‘one stop search’ page for all free access legal materials relevant to Victoria.
This will be achieved by the following key steps, for all of which AustLII has already done the necessary research, but which require application of known techniques to Victorian materials:
Other technical enhancements are likely to include an automatically generated ‘legal dictionary’ of terms defined in Victorian legislation, and words and phrases judicially defined.