Government by mastercard: get ready to pay for access to law

One of the great uses of the internet is access to the full text of statutes and court decisions. Government’s fondness for charging fees for its services is putting this use of the internet at risk. Two recent events-a change to the statutes website, and the creation of a new court services page-may signal a trend that reduces your involvement in our democracy.

Whither free online legislation?

I noticed this trend last week, when looking up a BC statute. As usual, I went to the alphabetical listing of BC statutes and regulations at BC Laws. What was new this time was a bright yellow announcement at the top:

Now, this is hardly an apocalypse. The government has always warned that the electronic versions of legislation are not guaranteed to be current. When I called the Queen’s Printer today, I learned that the online versions of legislation were updated as often as the print versions, approximately every six months.

But it appears the government may be deliberately slowing updates of the legislation, to prompt the public (now, I suppose, renamed “users” in the eyes of the government) to pay if they want to be sure of seeing today’s law.

That’s why the site advertises “QP LegalEze”, a new service offering legislation and regulations updated on a daily basis. The fee? $395 per year.

If you can’t afford to pay, you’ll have to settle for possibly outdated law or make your way to your neighbourhood law library, hoping their hard copy is more up to date. Or you can update the legislation yourself, but that’s an absurd task for most people: you’d have to waste hours combing through recent bills to detect any amendments, including those buried in generic bills with titles like Miscellaneous Statues Amendment Act.

The Queen’s Printer tells me they are working on updating the site and the print edition of the statutes, effective August 18, 2004. In theory, then, that’s an update within six months of the current version, which came out in February. But August 18 is more than two months ago, and the statutes are still not online. I can understand why it might take time to publish a new set of printed statutes. But when LegalEze has all the legislation current up to today, why couldn’t government just migrate the current laws over to the free site? The answer, of course, is that the delays make LegalEze more attractive.

Which leaves me wondering: will the updates become slower and slower, until LegalEze becomes the only useful option, and the free site shrivels up from disuse?

This would be an unfortunate loss of a great resource. And it will further alienate people from the legal system, betraying the internet’s potential to strengthen civil society.

(As an aside, federal legislation is difficult to find for another reason: the website keeps moving. I can’t even find the current site. The old address, laws.justice.gc.ca/en/, is still the top of a Google search for “statutes of Canada”, but the address no longer works. In fact, all of the sites produced by this Google search are either inactive or irrelevant. And a search through the site for the Department of Justice has proved fruitless: the “search federal laws” and “laws” links on Justice’s home page time out each time you click them. You can find some statutes through the websites of individual departments, if you look hard enough, but where has the alphabetical list of all statutes and regulations gone? The conspiracy-minded would suspect something was afoot: a plot to mire Canadians in ignorance of their laws.)

Now you see it, now you’ll have to pay: Court Services

The other BC legal resource that is becoming a pay-only site is new. And, to be fair, this site has, it seems, always been intended to be a “pay site.” The Court Services “E-search” site was launched on October 1.  The public, sorry, users have had access to the site at no charge since then, but that will change on October 1, when the site goes from this requirement: “Requirements: Adobe Acrobat” to “Requirements: MasterCard and Abobe Acrobat”.

The site is slow, but potentially very useful, since you can use a variety of search terms (names of individuals, companies, etc.) to look up court records going back, it seems, several years. Want to know whether the owner of your rental building has been court on tenant disputes in the past? Or want to know the recent litigation history of a politician, or a developer like Oberto Oberti, the proponent of the Jumbo ski resort? This is the site for you.

Well, maybe. Searches are slow, and the court records don’t appear to be available yet. And, of course, after October 31 -“trick or treat!” -the site is going to cost you $6 per result. And while you might still be able to see how many times your your obnoxious neighbour has been sued, you’ll probably have to sign up for an account to do any searches (get that MasterCard ready). And you’ll certainly have to pay to see any information about any of those suits. Since you can’t really tell from the search results whether you’ve found anything significant, the costs could add up.

Perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect the government to provide a search engine like this at no charge. Perhaps we should be glad the service is available to the general public at all, rather than just to lawyers (who routinely obtain such information through traditional means, at the court house).

The temporary appearance of this free service has reminded me of the potential the internet offers for civil society: real information -not just Britney Spears fan pages -at your fingertips.

It’s a potential that may be slipping through our fingertips. It’s one thing for a private business like the canada.com network and the Globe & Mail to tease us with access to articles online for several months or years, and then to take that access away unless you pay. It’s another for our government to do it.

Still, there is lots of good stuff on the net. And when a service like the legislation appears, we should do what we can to protect it. So you might want to call the Queen’s Printer (via Enquiry BC: (800) 663-7867 outside Vancovuer and Victoria; 604.660.2421 in Victoria, and 387-6121 in Victoria) and ask them to update the legislation more often. And since the decision is out of their hands, ask them whom to call or email within government, to put more resources into the updates.

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