Any efforts to organize laws in wiki format?
September 5, 2011 1:38 AM   Subscribe

How about a wiki for laws, reflecting their most current state?

I'm relatively uninformed in the legal realm, so please forgive me if I'm talking nonsense.

As far as I know, laws (US laws at least) have all sorts of changes to them after they're issues: memoranda, addendums, updates etc. This makes it painful to comprehend the current state of a particular law.

I know that Congress is not exactly a paragon of technological progress, but is there an effort to organize the entire law corpus into ONE place, and have it updated as laws change? A wiki (editable only by lawmakers) seems like the ideal platform for this purpose, and it would make it easier to figure out what the current status of a given law is, without having to refer to a stream of separate updates.
posted by harwons to Law & Government (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You might be interested in Cornell's online U.S. Code database, which is searchable and comes complete with RSS feeds.
posted by Rhaomi at 1:55 AM on September 5, 2011

in australia it is called austlii.
posted by jannw at 2:55 AM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

There are attempts to make law, and the current state of the law open, transparent and available to all online. Unfortunately, governments are showing little interest in this task, so it is mostly left to the benevolence of lawyers.

Unsurprisingly, given the scarcity in supply of that particular resource, the quality of publicly available legal information is quite low. The best, if chronically underfunded, attempts are probably the Legal Information Institute system- the main one in the US is the Cornell Legal Information Institute. (
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 3:44 AM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

As janw mentioned, Austlii. And it's a totally invaluable resource, not just for lawyers, but for policymakers, activists, anyone involved with regulation, and other of us non-lawyers.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 3:58 AM on September 5, 2011

Since it appears the internet is giving you a faint-hearted answer to this good and complicated question, you might be well advised to pursue this line of inquiry elsewhere, possibly in the public law library.

Seek out your law librarian and pose your question to him or her. You'll might be directed to a book about DIY legal research and self-representation (eg, something from the Nolo series). Or maybe you'll be granted free access to Westlaw's online collection of law--which I guess would be exactly the answer to your question. If it weren't for the fact that you would have no idea how to harness westlaw's awesome power.

I've found that most librarians are very skilled at what they do, are generous with their time and are benevolent. And in a law library, the librarian is not only generous and benevolent, but she is also a lawyer! Moreover, law librarian's salary (and the very expensive facility itself), is usually paid for by you, the public, otherwise known as the government.

Admittedly there are things that could be improved upon when it comes to making the law more accessible, some of which could be tasked to the government. But I think the problem is something the legal profession itself is better suited to address, if for no other reason than it would make for good public relations. In fact, your local bar association might have a link on its website that directs you to legal self-help resources. Often there are special days on which lawyers volunteer their time to the impecunious public, so that they, the lawyers, can have the honor of answering legal questions for free. Or, you might get lucky, cuz sometimes lawyers will answer those questions for free on random holidays! So check out the bar association website too. If you put in just a little effort, you could become a real pain in the ass of the poor judge that has to adjudicate your next disputed traffic ticket.

Anyway, if you do venture to a law library, you might want to start with a specific legal question, since if you insist on addressing the encompassing question from the get-go, the librarian might beat you to death with all three restatements of the law. Or worse yet, send you to law school.

And call me old-fashioned, but I think it's a VERY GOOD THING that the government is not the sole source of the law in the way you may be envisioning. PM me if you want the full philosophy.
posted by L'oeuvre Child at 5:19 AM on September 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Or maybe, now that I think of it, you're more sophisticated than my answer gave you credit for, in which case the answer is just go to the law library and try to get access to lexis nexis or westlaw. That or lobby congress to provide a similar service for free. But again, that could get complicated.
posted by L'oeuvre Child at 5:28 AM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

As far as I know, laws (US laws at least) have all sorts of changes to them after they're issues: memoranda, addendums, updates etc. This makes it painful to comprehend the current state of a particular law.
As janw mentioned, Austlii. And it's a totally invaluable resource, not just for lawyers, but for policymakers, activists, anyone involved with regulation, and other of us non-lawyers.

Australian systems of statute law have a number of features which make them particularly easy to turn into useful online databases. For a start, Acts are amended textually, so amending Bills are essentially sequences of unambiguous instructions for editing an Act (a bit like a patch file). This means that it's easy to keep a consolidated version of an Act up to date, and authoritative compilations of Acts are usually up on the web within days or weeks of amendments coming into effect. Subordinate legislation, like regulations, is generally not even effective until it has been made publicly available, at least at the Commonwealth level. Each government maintains its own online databases, although Austlii brings them all together under a single interface. It helps that extraneous material like explanatory memoranda etc is given secondary status, occasionally useful for resolving ambiguities in an Act but usually not so important.

Anyway, if your jurisdiction has one of the less user-friendly types of law, I feel genuinely sorry for you. I can't even imagine trying to make sense of non-textual statutory amendments.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 6:02 AM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Former U.S. law/legislative librarian here.

The most "official" public online source of federal laws is, provided by the Library of Congress. You can search the public laws organized by session of congress, or the U.S. Code (which contains the laws organized by titles (broad categories) which is how most people think of law).

Also, as others have mentioned, in some jurisdictions there are long-standing agreements with private publishers like West who get "first crack" at publishing the laws. They only go up on the free public sites after a blackout period.

But I think you your question is more philosophical than practical...which is really interesting. In my experience working in a legislative library, it is pretty hard to get all the disparate bodies involved with lawmaking to coordinate activities. Using a wiki seems to require a certain sense of community and cooperation (as well as a willingness to use technology) that is often lacking in the very tradition-bound and very territorial worlds of legal practice and law-making.

Others may have other experiences...but that's my .02.
posted by pantarei70 at 7:03 AM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I wrote a long answer but I think maybe I was assuming too much into your question. So I'll be shorter. All states (as far as I'm aware) and the feds post their codes online, with reasonable speed. For case law, Lexis-Nexis and Westlaw catalog them pretty comprehensively, with powerful (if not always intuitive) search and reference tools. (There are also various state and local efforts that may or may not be free to access.) Is there something you are looking for beyond this?

"I know that Congress is not exactly a paragon of technological progress, but is there an effort to organize the entire law corpus into ONE place, and have it updated as laws change?"

In common law countries, such as the U.S., the laws change literally moment-to-moment as the courts update them ... Lexis-Nexis's database is about the closest I can think of to a truly comprehensive corpus of all the law (in the US) ... and it's expensive because it's a hell of a lot of work to put together.

"This makes it painful to comprehend the current state of a particular law."

This is why my initial answer was so long, but this is sort-of inherent in the common law; it has many sources and changes constantly in complicated ways ... it's really what lawyers get paid for in common law countries (such as the US, UK, Australia, Canada, etc.). I wonder if your complaint pertains less to the availability of law-indexing resources and more to a) unnecessarily complex or jargony legal language (something it's necessary, but sometimes not); or b) the complexity of the way the common law systems themselves work; or c) the enormity of the corpus of law in the U.S. that makes it impossible for even a specialist to "know all the law." Are these part of (or all of) the problem?

Another problem is that laws are typically written out in paragraphs, etc., when sometimes they could be much more clearly and easily explained by, say, a chart. Every now and then these days you do see a chart ... often after all the paragraphs explaining it the long way. So another problem might be the data presentation.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:12 AM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Unfortunately, the common law system is extremely broken when it comes to helping citizens understand the law. Statutes are publicly available, but many of the elaborations and definitions needed to understand those statutes are contained in the rulings of judges. You can find those rulings on freely-accessible sources if you know which one specifically you need, but if your goal is to find the most up-to-date version of a rule pertaining to a specific issue before a specific court, then you need to use fee-based services like Lexis or Westlaw, because keeping track of all of the rulings that have value as binding precedent is a lot of work and there's money to be made doing it.

In the common law we have a maxim: "ignorance of the law is no excuse." But there's an unwritten corollary to that, which is "educating yourself about the law is your problem, and no one cares how difficult it might be to do so." The law is painful not by design, because there is no design to the common law. It's painful because we're stuck using a medieval system of law in the 21st century, and no one has the will to fix it.
posted by 1adam12 at 8:31 AM on September 5, 2011

In theory, I'd love this.

But in the US, anyway, it is probably actually impossible, or at least an absolutely massive undertaking that would require a huge staff working every day to maintain the wiki.

First, why it would be a massive undertaking: as soon as a law is enacted, or amended, the courts start interpreting each word and phrase. These precedential decisions become the new law, as long as another (higher or equivalent court depending) doesn't modify or change that decision. These holdings are rarely clear; lawyers get paid, in part, for finding all the new interpretations of the law, understanding them, and making viable arguments under those rulings to support their position. Split decisions are even more complicated. This judicial interpretation is happening in administrative, state, and federal jurisdictions all over the country, constantly. A wiki would require a staff of lawyers to carefully read every single new decision every day (to ensure accuracy), come to the "right" interpretation of the decision, and update the wiki immediately. Also, sometimes another court will overrule part of a prior decision, but leave the rest intact as "good law," further complicating the search for a clear, definitive answer. Westlaw and Lexis charge a lot of money to get you part way there - they help you efficiently search for updates to laws and cases. But you rarely get a definitive answer.

Why maybe impossible? Because often lawyers and judges don't agree on what the "right" answer is. Some of these notty problems are resolved by the supreme court, but most are left hanging unresolved.
posted by n'muakolo at 8:50 AM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

With all due respect to a couple of previous posters, in Australia at the Commonwealth level it's Comlaw, which has all Commonwealth Acts and nearly all statutory instruments in compiled up to date form, as searchable HTML and in Word and pdf. it is rarely more than a day or two behind the game. Most State and Territory governments in Australia maintain an official website that does a similar job, although they vary in their sophistication. Comlaw has links to them. New Zealand has New Zealand Legislation. The UK has, which has most Acts up to date (although some of the most frequently amended ones are some way behind) and only the basic texts of statutory instruments. The Canadian Department of Justice maintains the Justice Laws Website, which has all Dominion Acts and Regulations, updated weekly. I don't know about Canadian provinces and territories. Most places in the Commonwealth of Nations seem to be getting heavily into web publication of legislation--there are a few people around who specialise in it.

Even the European Commission maintains an online database of European Union law: Eur-Lex, which includes up to date texts of instruments that have been amended (if you want to look at a Directive that has been amended, a search for the Directive gets you to its home page and you can pick up a link to the consolidated text from there).

Declaration of interest: I draft laws. Eyebrows: I have no problem with doing charts or tables, and they are quite common in Australian legislation. Basically, if I can find a simpler and clearer way of setting the stuff out, I'll use it. But I do not intend to abandon the statutory paragraphs--they are there to avoid any problems with grammatical subordination and the like (and if it gets too complicated, you're doing it wrong).

I'd like to deal with the issue about what the judges do with it, but this answer is too long already.
posted by Logophiliac at 8:55 AM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Eyebrows: I have no problem with doing charts or tables, and they are quite common in Australian legislation. Basically, if I can find a simpler and clearer way of setting the stuff out, I'll use it. But I do not intend to abandon the statutory paragraphs--they are there to avoid any problems with grammatical subordination and the like (and if it gets too complicated, you're doing it wrong)."

Oh, sure. My state now provides some really nice charts for some legislation, but the one super-simple thing that could be better? Put the chart FIRST with all the paragraphs AFTER, since Average Joe looking it up wants the chart. And then could follow footnotes or citations to the appropriate paragraphs as necessary. Sometimes someone fights through 10 pages of law before stumbling on the chart that would have answered the simple question in 20 seconds. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:58 AM on September 5, 2011

Eyebrows: This may be turning into chatfilter, but ISTR that some Australian Acts put the chart first as an explanation, or may be the whole of the text. And if I use a table that's all there is--no text at all other than "as set out in the following table".

Australian Acts quite commonly begin each large chunk with an explanation or summary of the chunk too.
posted by Logophiliac at 9:12 AM on September 5, 2011

For the same reason that there is no single, immediately-updated wiki flowchart explaining what you should do in any possible medical exigency. Yeah, it would be extremely useful and conceivably practicable. But it would also be either (i) dangerously oversimplified, or (ii) impenetrable to laymen. Assuming that we chose (ii) and developed a wiki that was readable only by professionals, then we'd probably wind up with exactly what we have: an ever-updated Code, cross-referenced against various people's ever-updated footnotes and exegeses, cross-referenced against convoluted caselaw as it continuously emerges.

Law might be an even worse candidate for this treatment than medicine, since legal outcomes can sometimes be irreconcileably inconsistent with one another.
posted by foursentences at 9:31 AM on September 5, 2011

I'm a lawyer, so I have to give you the "it depends" answer. In this case, it depends on a lot, but mainly on what is meant by "the laws." When you are analyzing a legal problem as a lawyer does the laws take in a vast territory of sources that potentially apply. These include the codification of statutes found in the United States Code and in the states, various administrative regulations found in the Code of Federal Regulations and its daily updates in the Federal Register and the state equivalents. And since the statutes and regulations have been interpreted by the courts, there's a whole other hierarchy of sources in the decisions of trial and appellate courts, some of which conflict and others of which are still in play for various procedural reasons.

As noted, the Westlaw and Lexis commercial services take in much of the territory but not in a way that could be described as Wiki-like. Assuming that everything could be gathered into a single, open-source, public platform and kept up-to-date on a daily basis, that would be a great blessing to lawyerdom, but it might not help the non-legal user as much as you might think.

The reason for this is that almost all non-lawyers would likely look at this compendium as a source of answers, such as "can I get out of my lease?" They would find conflicting answers, ambiguous answers, or no answers at all. That's the nature of the beast. The laws are complex, not completely harmonized and, in common law jurisdictions, very sensitive to minute differences in the factual situations to which they are applied.

Before I became a lawyer, I thought that the phrase "legal research" was non-sensical. Just look it up, right? When I was a first-year student, I became attuned to the importance of questions, such as "what color was the banana peel?" (Incrowd laugh here.) When I was a first-year associate, I learned that words like the verb "to draft" are what lawyers call "terms of art," that didn't mean what I thought ("draft" means to take an existing contract or other example document and to change it absolutely as little as possible to adapt it to a different use). When I was an administrative law judge, I learned that sometimes you have to make things up (we call this reasoning from underlying policy). And when I was a senior lawyer for a large bank, I learned that the advice you get from outside lawyers depends critically on how you frame the question.

Punch line: laws may read like English, but you cannot understand them in the same way that the lawyers and judges who work with them do. It's not because we're smarter than the average bear (some of us are very smart, others are pretty dim, most are about average) but because collectively we've been doing this for going on to 1,000 years and we have a lot of secret handshakes baked into the legal culture. This is not a fertile field for DIY and, while having done your own homework can be helpful in knowing when you're being BS'd, the hypothetical Wiki is not a substitute for having to talk to a lawyer.
posted by technocrat at 9:36 AM on September 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't really see how making laws available as a wiki is any more informative or up to date than the current means of publishing them. In fact, if it were in wiki format, I think I'd be inclined to distrust it far more than the current sites, which I think are very reliable.

If you're talking about handy-dandy summaries of laws, that's just not something that most legislation is susceptible of.
posted by jayder at 1:24 PM on September 5, 2011

Well, there's some movement but it's a really large subject. Right now, case law in the US is essentially monopolized by Lexis/West. Projects dedicated to changing this incluse and CourtListener but these face huge uphill struggles. The federal register and US Code are published in XML format by the GPO but it's a horrible mess. The House is looking at XML-ising their proceedings.

Outside the US, things are more advanced; a good clearing-house for such information is the Centre for Information and Communication Technology in Parliament. In Europe, partly motivated by the language barriers, there's a lot of work on developing robust legal ontologies for semantic web classification. There are also interesting things happening in this regard at Stanford. However, it's questionable whether the end point of this research is a human-readable wiki or to make existing legal materials machine-readable. If this is all starting to sound like a hard AI problem, that's because it is.

I could go on about this, but it would turn into a mammoth linkdump of my legal informatics bookmarks, and frankly getting that organized and under control is a project that's going to take me until the end of the year, along with first year legal studies. I have something of a head start on this (IT/informatics background, wife in litigation support, good personal network), and would probably more you to tears. I agree with Technocrat that this stuff would not be that interesting or useful to the general public, and think it will be at least 5 years before that even begins to change.
posted by anigbrowl at 9:26 PM on September 7, 2011

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