In the UK most of the law on any particular subject is found through many and varied statutes (Acts and Statutory Instruments). These statutes (sometimes referred to as a statute ‘book’, despite no single book existing) are vast and this can make the law on any particular subject spread out and hard to find. Furthermore the statutes have inconsistent titles and are ordered chronologically not by any reference to their content. So this means there is no easy way of finding all law on a particular subject because thousands of statutes, some of which are centuries old, are organised by reference to when they are passed or made.
In relation to Wales there is an added complication that much of Welsh law is inter-twined with law that also applies to England or to other parts of the UK. Some law is specific to Wales – not only Acts passed by the National Assembly or Regulations made by the Welsh Ministers, but also some Acts or parts of Acts passed by the UK Parliament – while some law is the same in Wales as it is in England or the rest of the UK.
In addition an important element of the system of government is that Acts passed by the UK Parliament and the National Assembly often give powers to government ministers, be they powers to take certain actions or decisions or to make further (secondary) laws. But the reader of legislation sometimes needs to understand certain matters that cannot be seen on the face of these Acts in order to understand the true legal position. The most obvious and frequently occurring example is that the reader will often see that an Act has conferred powers on the ‘Secretary of State’, when this position isn’t necessarily that straightforward.
Prior to the creation of the devolved governments this was a relatively simple concept involving powers being conferred on the (single) office of the Secretary of State and then being allocated as appropriate, for example to the Secretary of State for Education or the Secretary of State for Wales. Since 1999, however, references in legislation to powers being conferred on the ‘Secretary of State’ can in reality mean a reference to a power that has been devolved (by being transferred through an Order in Council (the Privy Council)) to Wales. Between 1999 and 2007 therefore many references to the ‘Secretary of State’ actually meant, in relation to Wales, the National Assembly for Wales; and by now (because of the effect of the Government of Wales Act 2006) they mean the Welsh Ministers. When reading the legislation, however, there remains only a reference to the ‘Secretary of State’. To add to this complexity Acts passed by the UK Parliament between 1999 and 2007 often conferred powers upon the ‘National Assembly for Wales’, though again by now the power lies with the Welsh Ministers.
Publication of statutes is another problem. Online publication of up to date legislation (in other words publication of statutes that incorporates any changes made to them by subsequent statutes) has in recent times only been done comprehensively by commercial publishers. This means that up to date versions of Welsh legislation has not available free of charge and not at all in the Welsh language. A new government website called legislation.gov.uk was created in 2010 but it was launched largely with the original versions of statutes (in other words without incorporating subsequent amendments). This is being remedied but the work is not complete and care is required when using the site as a result.
More generally private sector commercial publishers have for some time provided solutions to many of the problems associated with accessing legislation, most obviously by providing up to date annotated versions of legislation but also by publishing encyclopaedias and journals providing commentary on the law. This, however, involves paying for the services and the services don’t remedy all of the issues - and many of these services do not take diverging Welsh laws into account.
In consequence the Welsh Government has for some time been considering what can practically be done to improve the position. There are three strands to what is being considered and done.
The first involves considering what can be done to consolidate the law by creating more ‘stand-alone’ Welsh laws (or a ‘Welsh Statute Book’). This has been done to a limited extent in the Assembly Acts passed since 2011 but the Law Commission of England and Wales is helping the Government to consider what more can be done and is looking at the costs and benefits of wholesale consolidation of the law, perhaps into ‘codes’ of law on specific subjects.
The second involves contributing to the work to improve legislation.gov.uk (which is the responsibility of the Queen’s Printer and the National Archives).
And the third is the creation of this website, and encouraging members of the legal professions to contribute to it so that it develops into a comprehensive source of commentary on Welsh law.