When the current pandemic caused widespread closures of law libraries, government archives, and courthouses, it magnified an issue that greatly affects everyone seeking official legal and legislative documents. The printed volumes, which are currently considered the only official version of laws and legislative documents in Massachusetts, were--and in some cases still are--not accessible; more than ever the public has had to rely on digital versions of the Massachusetts General Laws, Code of Massachusetts Regulations, legislative acts and resolves, bills, journals, and so on. The desire for greater and easier access to legal and legislative materials online continues to grow, but it raises an important issue regarding the officialness of online versions of such documents.
For example, the Massachusetts legislature’s website makes it clear that the online version of the Massachusetts General Laws is not official:
But what if this is the only version anyone can get access to? This is also problematic when the official print volumes of documents have not yet been published, in some cases for many years, but the unofficial versions are available online through the authoritative source.
The Uniform Law Commission, since 2011, has been working with states to adopt legislation called the Uniform Electronic Legal Material Act (UELMA). The act, as described by the Commission, “establishes an outcomes-based, technology-neutral framework for providing online legal material with the same level of trustworthiness traditionally provided by publication in a law book.” Currently, 21 states and Washington DC have adopted UELMA; however, Massachusetts is not yet among these states. As Butch Lazorchak of the Library of Congress succinctly states in his 2012 blog about digital document authenticity, “Digital legislative materials are not going to go away.” It was meant to be a statement to the obvious, but almost 10 years later this has proven to be completely true. While Massachusetts has pending legislation for the current 2021-2022 session (see H1597), previous attempts have failed without much action. Until UELMA passes in the commonwealth, access to official versions of legal and legislative documents remains limited to traditional print resources that are only available in law libraries and other institutions that specialize in such collections.
For more information about UELMA and related subjects:
- Uniform Law Commission: Electronic Legal Material Act
- American Association of Law Libraries: UELMA Resources
- National Conference of State Legislatures: UELMA State Legislation
- The Death of Twentieth-Century Authority, by Michael Whiteman
- Library of Congress: UELMA blogs