Aide-memoire on the background for the creation of the Lovdata Foundation

by Jon Bonnevie Høyer (1981)

1. General views concerning information on legal provisions.

This aide-memoire is indirectly concerned with the problem of facilitating the retrieval of information on legal provisions, whenever the need arises for such information. This is a fundamental problem in any state governed by law. For reasons that are easily understood, statutes, regulations and legal provisions otherwise must apply, irrespective of whether the person or persons affected knows about the provision in question. There is, however, inherent in such a system considerable material for conflict. There is bound to be dissatisfaction and a feeling of unjust treatment on the part of those persons who unsuspectingly are confronted with rules they did not know nor had any practical possibility of knowing. A situation such as this may tend to erode the respect for the rules provided by society and the willingness to observe these rules. Especially in a modern welfare state, with comprehensive regulatory measures subject to continuous changes, this is a problem which there is every reason to take seriously.

The problem of providing a survey of legal provisions just when needed is also an important part of the legal aid problem. A prerequisite for offering effective legal aid is not only being able to understand the set of rules one has found, but also being able to find all the legal sources with a bearing on the solution of a legal problem.

The authorities issue the Norwegian Legal Gazette, a continuous publication of new statutes and regulations and have also published pre-legislative works (travaux préparatoires). Moreover, the authorities' effort in this sector comprises the education of lawyers and others offering legal aid. The most important tool of the people involved in the legal aid system - the Norwegian Statute Book, the compilations of court decisions, legal textbooks and commentaries - is published by private enterprises, however.

The problem of finding certain information just when the need is there applies to practically all ways of life. A common way of tackling the problem is to establish various forms of indexes and make summaries which are filed systematically. In other Western countries with larger populations it is usually private publishing firms which prepare and publish comprehensive indexes, catalogues and other reference material as aids to the retrieval of relevant legal sources. It is a fact, though, that the preparation of adequate reference books for legal sources requires much highly qualified legal manpower. In Norway the market for legal literature is comparatively limited. Therefore, what we can offer commercially of traditional aids for finding one's way among the legal sources, is rather modest.

The revolution which now is taking place within the information technology - and where the catehwords i.a. are the use of microprocessors and the development of new data storage media - is gradually going to completely change our habitual concepts about the storage and retrieval of information on legal sources. Before another 10 years have passed, it will probably be feasible, and within acceptable economic limits, to store all the Norwegian legal sources of any significance in full text on a large database, which may be made accessible for reading on ordinary terminals.

Where the legal information system is concerned, the current development offers large possibilities. Professional legal aid people and public officials will he in a far better position by having practical and efficient methods for recovering relevant legal provisions just at the moment when they are needed. By means of an office computer a lawyer or an official may for instance in a few seconds connect to central data bases covering statutes, pre-legislative works, regulations, circulars, court practice, legal literature etc., and have his screen display the text he is looking for. If he should wish, he may at the same time get a paper copy of the whole or parts of the document he has found. The search system used will not only find documents which the user knows exist and to wnich ne has a reference. It may also find relevant documents unknown to the user. This does not mean that the traditional instruments for retrieval of legal sources are going to disappear; only that computer-assisted systems are going to play an important supplementary role.

Where the work of obtaining a survey of superfluous and conflicting regulatory provisions is concerned, a full-text search system applied to a data base of regulations will be a very useful instrument.

Registration of legal sources in a machine readable form may offer substantial commercial possibilities, both through an offer of access to data bases for searching and through the opportunities provided by such a system for printing special compilations of all legal sources within separate spheres of law.

In the opinion of the Ministry of Justice, commercialization of the computer-assisted legal information system ought to be avoided. Apart from the literature, written legal sources are a product of public efforts and may be looked upon as part of our common property. It must be an aim to make them accessible at the lowest possible cost and in a manner which is in conformity with the Norwegian legal source principles.

At the same time it is of essence to ensure that the legal information system remains unbiased and independent in relation to a definite party. Considering that the state and the municipalities appear as parties in a number of law suits, principal objections may be raised against assigning to a public administrative body the task of selecting which court decisions are to be printed or incorporated in a data base. This is not because there is any reason to believe that the state in normal times would be apt to further its own interests. The system should, however, be shaped so as to avoid the least suspicion that this might happen.

2. Lovdata's operations up to now.

The Norwegian Statute Book is published by the Norwegian Statute Book Foundation at the University of Oslo Law Faculty. A new updated edition is published every second year. So far, The Norwegian Statute Book has been printed by traditional methods. In 1979, however, the Norwegian Statute Book Foundation established an office called Lovdata, to which was assigned the task of making a new registration of The Norwegian Statute Book in a machine readable medium, to make possible the printing of the 1981 edition based on computer-produced type. The registration itself is now being undertaken by a Swedish firm using optical reading. The role of Lovdata has been to administer the conversion and to develop the required data processing programs and routines for the utilization of the text for purposes other than the printing of the compilation of statutes.

The Statute Book Foundation started early to keep the Ministry of Justice posted on the plans for creating a data base on the Norwegian Statute Book, and the Ministry has taken part in the preparatory work that was carried out prior to the establishment of the Lovdata office. The aim has all the time been to achieve a system that would satisfy both the needs of the Norwegian Statute Book Foundation for the creation and maintenance of a computer-based printing basis for future editions of the Norwegian Statute Book, and the needs of public administration and others for a data base on the statutes suited for searching. The presupposition has also been that a data base on the statutes might be incorporated in a larger data base which also included other legal sources. Thus the foundation would be laid for printing so-called subject compilations - that is, compilations including the various legal sources such as statutes, regulations, court practice etc. in limited fields of law.

According to plan, the data base on the Norwegian Statute Book should be completed by the end of 1981. In a report submitted to the Council for Legal Informatics, which has been approved by the Council, it has been suggested that as from January 1, 1982, Lovdata should be taking part in the work of registering and printing the Norwegian Legal Gazette. The aim is to simplify the updating of the data bases on statutes and at the same time to start the creation of a data base on regulations.

Current efforts are also taking place to establish routines for a cooperation between Lovdata and the administrative services, so that all legal sources printed by the administrative services gradually may be incorporated into a more comprehensive computer-based legal information system without having to undertake new registrations.

Moreover, contact has been made with the Norwegian Bar Association regarding the creation of a data base on court practice, the publication of which is done by the Association of Lawyers in the Norsk Retstidende and Rettens Gang.

Cooperation with the Parliament's administrative division will also be necessary to arrange the inclusion of parliamentary documents into a coordinated legal information system based on modern technology.

Considering the central position of legal textbooks and commentaries in a Norwegian legal information system, it appears natural for Lovdata to attempt to work together with a publishing firm which publishes legal literature.

3. Plans for the future operations of Lovdata.

The purpose of establishing Lovdata has been to lay the foundation for a development that will increase the accessibility to the legal sources in accordance with accepted legal source principles. In this development the Legal Information Council, appointed by the Government on January 11 1980, shall be responsible for giving the fundamental directives. Lovdata may act as an executive body which, by means of modern information technology, shall attempt to improve the flow of legal source texts between the interested parties in the legal information system. In order to achieve this purpose the activities of Lovdata must be concentrated in two areas:

First, Lovdata must be in a position to carry out advisory and reporting functions concerning the utilization of technical aids for registration, updating, retrieval and publication of legal source texts. It is essential that Lovdata should have the technical expertise required for facilitating, simplifying and speeding up the access to legal sources on all levels. Lovdata may for instance offer advice on how to register legal sources to ensure easy printing and distribution or to make them accessible from data bases where they may be recovered by computers. Moreover, Lovdata should have the expertise to handle problems in connection with the transfer of registered texts between various computers. In short, Lovdata should aim at establishing an expertise that may render possible a joint utilization, interehange and processing of legal source texts, without the various parties in the system having to depend on a special type of computer or system solution.

Second, Lovdata must be able to operate systems in connection with the creation, updating and utilization of data bases composed of legal source texts. Among these operations may be the following:

  • Creation and maintenance of data bases of central legal sources
  • Transmission of legal source texts to users in the central and local administration, trade and industry and the public at large. Potential users will thus include producers, publishing firms and final users of legal source texts.

Transmission may be effected by Lovdata making the text available for searching in a text retrieval system, or by Lovdata supplying text in other ways, such as text ready for printing. Lovdata may also act as a link with foreign legal information systems, such as the Common Market's Celex system.

From an economic point of view it is assumed that Lovdata will be self-financing. This will make it easier to satisfy the demand from a steadily increasing and developing market. It is evident, however, that Lovdata needs initial capital to provide the necessary equipment and to cover possible operational deficits during the first years.

Lovdata cannot anticipate substantial incomes before the data bases have attained a size which makes them attractive to a sufficient number of users. It must be expected therefore, that both 1981 and 1982, as was the case with the year 1980, will be needed for the creation of data bases. However, by 1983 the initiation of an information system based on text retrieval should be possible. And the sale of services to publishers might be possible from an earlier date.

In principle, Lovdata s services ought to be available to everyone. After some time has passed, a considerable demand for these services must be expected, especially in connection with searching of the data bases. However, there should be nothing to prevent the operation of these data bases from being decentralized to a very large extent by Lovdata offering updated versions of the data bases for running on computers spread about the country.

Normally, no special rights will be linked to the legal source texts which Lovdata receives from public institutions. Legal literature, commentaries or legal sources in a processed form may, however, only be transmitted on the basis of ordinary copyright law.

4. Establishment of the Lovdata Foundation.

The Ministry of Justice believes that there is an evident need for an institution that may handle the services which Lovdata so far has taken care of and which it plans to provide. However, considering the central part played by public bodies as producers of legal sources, it seems natural that the authorities should take a larger part in the governing of such an institution. In the years to come several of the tasks pertaining to Lovdata are also likely to be connected to the problem of facilitating access to the existing provisions.

Lovdata has been established by the Norwegian Statute Book Foundation and this institution also has the right of disposal over the data base of the Norwegian Statute Book which is about to be created. Therefore, the Ministry of Justice has been negotiating with the Norwegian Statute Book Foundation concerning whether the Foundation night be willing to participate in the effort to reorganize Lovdata, and to make the data base of the statutes available to public institutions.

The Board of the Statute Book Foundation has taken part in the efforts to ensure that the further development of Lovdata takes place in cooperation with public institutions and other groups especially affected, and to ensure that public institutions and others may use the data base of statutes for purposes other than the printing of a statute book. In the discussions between the Ministry of Justice and the board of the Statute Book Foundation it has been agreed that the future Lovdata shall operate as a non-profit self-financing body. It has also been agreed that Lovdata should be an independent organisation where public administrative bodies are concerned and that it should be governed so as to ensure the representation of the most important parties in the work to be done. Moreover, it has been decided that Lovdata shall be open to assignments of both a reporting and an operational nature from the central, regional and local administration as well as from lawyers, trade and industry and others that might be in need of such aid. The parties have also considered it an essential factor that Lovdata shall establish connections with professional expertise, from which it may benefit in order to ensure an adequate handling and care of the legal and legal source aspects of the activities.

On this basis the Ministry of Justice and the Norwegian Statute Book Foundation have arrived at the conclusion - to which the Legal Information Council has adhered - that Lovdata should be re-organised to become a foundation, i.e. a private institution. It has been discussed whether the functions which Lovdata is supposed to take care of should be transferred to a central administrative body. However, the principal opinions on the importance of Lovdata's independence do not favour such a solution. The fact that Lovdata should be in a position to undertake services for private as well as public institutions also speaks in favour of a different organisational model. In addition, the Ministry of Justice presumes that the interests of the public authorities will be properly taken care of through the suggested representation on the board and with the Legal Information Council acting as an advisory body to the new institution.

The parties have also discussed whether Lovdata should rather be organised as a joint-stock company. However, in order to secure Lovdata's independent position as a non-profit institution, it seems more appropriate to make Lovdata a private foundation.