Some Thoughts on the Accessibility of Legal Information and Legal Records

AuthorSarah Sutherland
DateFebruary 16, 2016

In a time rapidly retreating into the past, I flirted with the idea of becoming an archivist and devoted thought to the nature of records, their legal status, and how they reflect reality. I was recently reminded of this when I heard the opinion that the official versions of legislation should no longer be published in annual volumes with amendments and periodic revisions as they are now. Instead it was proposed that a yearly annual revision be published as the official version with annotations indicating amendments as a way to simplify the process of research and to make the laws more accurately reflect the experience of people subject to the law.

I’ve been thinking about this idea since and come to the conclusion that while it makes sense from the perspective of the public and more closely reflects the unofficial versions of the law on services such as CanLII or in print consolidations like practitioners’ criminal codes that make accessing the law simpler, it would increase the distance between the laws and the legislative process that created them, making them worse records.

In my studies, we discussed the difference between documents that record an act and documents that are binding when they are somehow signed, endorsed, sealed, notarized, or otherwise made official. A marriage is an example of the former: you are married because you made an oath, not because you signed the register. The register documents the marriage. I have been told that proclamation of regulations are an example of the later: the endorsement of the document brings it into force, though I was disappointed to learn there is not an official proclaimer of regulations one could go see read regulations aloud in full, preferably in a fancy hat.

Legislation becomes law through many processes, and the system of publishing those laws evolved as a way to express the process of legislating and to record that it had been followed. Hansard records the discussions in parliament verbatim. Interim bills are published as they change through discussion at set stages. Annual statute volumes record the actual bills that were passed. This creates a labyrinth of documentation to navigate for any complex matter where legislative intent is important, but it limits the ability of legislators to capriciously enact laws.

The need for proper recording of government actions is well illustrated by the recent news stories in British Columbia and Ontario relating to the deletion of government records. In those...

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