PAL: let's see the content, says Franks

Formatting isn't the first priority for most users, says Act MP

The Parliamentary Counsel Office (PCO) should stop fussing with the format of documents posted on its trouble-plagued Public Access to Legislation (PAL) system, and give more attention to getting the information to the public quickly, says ACT MP Stephen Franks.

Most of the public are used to reading documents on a screen and are more concerned about getting the information than the way it is presented, Franks says. PAL is stalled mostly over intricate matters of formatting related to the printing of acts or bills. These may be important to MPs considering a bill but it is not necessary to worry too much about formatting in the online version, which can be formatted using “off-the-shelf” software, he says.

PAL, originally scheduled to be operational in 2003, will now not be ready until next year. The parliamentary timetable means users of the website are unlikely to see a fully functioning database of acts, bills and regulations until early 2007.

Franks quotes from a reply given by PCO head George Tanner to National MP Richard Worth, that the PAL project is “not looking ten years into the future” but at bringing the New Zealand online legislation system up-to-date with “comparable jurisdictions around the world, notably Australia".

New Zealand's system is ahead of others such as Mongolia, Tanner was quoted as saying. PCO staff, however, told Computerworld they would not confirm or deny the quote until they had examined the transcript of the meeting in question.

The current legislation system provides a formatted version of acts of Parliament in association with private publisher Brookers; The text of bills, however, are provided through the Knowledge Basket in plain-text form which, Franks says, is difficult to read. Even an interim solution using off-the-shelf software would be more readable, Franks suggests.

The intense work on the formatting of legislation may even have led the PCO to neglect the content of law, Franks says. In common with many MPs, he says laws arrive on the statute books containing vague phrases such as “accountability” and “the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi”, which are difficult, if not impossible, to interpret. “Old-style law drafters would reject this kind of language,” he says; “They’d say ‘No, we can’t put this in; no court will know what it means’.”

Such language is put there by Parliament and tolerated by select committees, he agrees; “but it’s part of the PCO’s job to act as a check on that, and they used to before they became so focused on [PAL].”

Deputy chief Parliamentary counsel Geoff Lawn acknowledges that, pending the completion of PAL, “New Zealand does lag behind other countries in providing electronic access to up-to-date legislation.

“However, that does not mean that the new PAL system is being built without consideration for future enhancements. Indeed, the technical underpinning of the new PAL system is designed to future-proof the system, so far as it is possible to predict future developments in technology," he says.

“This is demonstrated by the choice of XML as the platform for the new system, the selection of mainstream software products (Arbortext Epic Editor and Documentum) for the core of the system, the modularity of the system and the use of industry standards and coding practices.

“One of the objectives of the technical review of the PAL system undertaken by InQuirion was to provide assurance to the New Zealand Government that the new system, when implemented, would be operationally stable, maintainable, and capable of supporting future enhancement and development,” he says.

Lawn also disputes the wisdom of having a simpler legislation system built for the web with off-the-shelf tools. “The interpretation of legislation is often affected by format. There are New Zealand examples of judicial decisions on the interpretation of legislation that turn on the format of a piece of text. That structure and layout are critical to understanding is universally recognised by linguists and communications experts, and endorsed by the New Zealand Law Commission..

"The new PAL system must therefore be able to produce documents (in both printed and electronic form) that are formatted to a sufficiently high standard to be used during the Parliamentary process, and be relied on as official statements of the law.”

Designing the system around XML, he says, enables multiple outputs, including printed legislation and HTML pages for the website, to be produced from the same source.

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