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More millions needed to get laws online

By Francis Till

Friday 22nd August 2003

Text too small?
Already seven months overdue, the government's $8.17 million system to put statutes and bills online has run into more delays. Now it looks as though it will cost taxpayers millions more before it goes live ­ it it does at all.

The two-year-old project, designed to provide free-of-charge public internet access to legislative documents, was to have gone live at the end of January. Now it appears the multi-million-dollar PAL (Public Access to Legislation) system is seen as incomplete by the justice and electoral sub-committee and cannot be put into operation by the Parliamentary Counsel Office (PCO). At issue are even more funds and a host of technical issues.

Unisys, the project contractor, wants to be assured further funding will cover "significant" extra work before proceeding. It says the website could be used in its present form but should undergo finetuning.

Talks are under way between the government and Unisys and the PCO has initiated a technical evaluation under the direction of Timothy Arnold-Moore who heads a text-management specialist team from Australian firm InQuirion, which built a similar website for the NSW Parliamentary Counsel Office.

Both the PCO and Unisys had earlier denied there was a problem and a PCO executive said in June that while the project would be subject to a standard evaluation there were no technical problems.

Sources now say the difficulties are substantial and related to providing users with the ability to follow drafting changes as legislation moves through the parliamentary processes, and in amendments to statutes.

The Brookers-run "Interim Website of New Zealand Legislation" will be available meanwhile as a free-to-the-public resource. That website is independent of the PCO/Unisys effort and does not provide many of the refinements promised by the PCO for PAL. It uses its own database and warns users that copies of legislative and statute text are unofficial.

This is not the first scope-driven escalation in costs for PAL, initially approved at $5.19 million. When the cabinet approved the second stage, the cost had risen to $8.17 million.

"This was to be the full and final cost," a committee report said. "Resolving the difficulties will require additional expenditure."

Now it seems likely the government will establish a date after which the PAL project, if not operational, will be completely re-evaluated and negotiations reopened for private provider alternatives, according to the Auckland District Law Society's Law News.

It says members of the committee have argued that the difficulties should encourage the government to reconsider trying to be its own publisher.

Meanwhile, Brookers' service commitment runs out at the end of the year, and another legislation site has gone dark ­ except to paid subscribers. The Knowledge Basket's database of statutes had been publicly available for more than five years.

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