Just like the Universe of stars and planets, our Universe of Law is vast, complex, and expanding.
Recently, the Australian Law Reform Commission launched its DataHub, which provides new insights into the dynamic and intricate nature of our legal cosmos. It’s one small step for man, but one giant leap for legal understanding.
The DataHub is an open-access repository that includes 16 data sets and seven case studies that use data to understand our laws. The data sets cover everything from the subject-matter, length, and maker of legislation, to the sun-setting date of all legislative instruments, and the number of obligations in each Act of Parliament.
Hundreds of data points have been collected by the ALRC. The DataHub offers the possibility of rich vistas and new understandings of our law and legal system.
In the remainder of this article we briefly outline four key learnings that we have gained through creating the DataHub, which relate to the law’s scale, expansion, complexity, and tendency to disorder. At the end of this article, there are links to further resources.
New learnings from our Universe of Law
Our Universe of Law is vast. Comprising over 282,000 pages across more than 1220 Acts and 17,600 pieces of delegated legislation, the volume of law currently in force in Australia boggles the mind. The more than 21 million words currently contained in Commonwealth Acts of Parliament would take a person over 1400 hours to read, and that doesn’t even include delegated legislation (which is larger again).
The scale of the Commonwealth statute book dwarves the stars of the literary universe, being equivalent in length to 533 copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses, or 252 copies of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
Using the DataHub, our Universe of Law can now be visualised for the first time (with the open-source software Cytoscape, and the programming language R). Figure 1 highlights a part of this universe – the more than 5400 Acts (yellow) and legislative instruments (blue) that comprise the galaxy of corporations and financial services legislation.
The vast and frequent connections among these pieces of legislation – as created by amendments, modifications, and authorisations – can finally be explored.
Figure 1: Connections between corporations and financial services legislation.
The staggering scale of our Universe of Law is also made clear in other ways. For example, the DataHub reveals that there are more than 6600 references to ‘commits an offence’ or ‘guilty of an offence’ in Commonwealth Acts currently in force.
There has also been an explosion in civil penalty provisions, from none in 1990, to more than 1650 in force today. Both of these data points highlight the risks that may befall those who fail to comply with the myriad requirements of our vast legal cosmos.
Much as we live in an expanding universe, so too do we live with an expanding Universe of Law.
Expansion since the 1980s is particularly noticeable, as the Australian Government moved from generally producing fewer than 5000 pages of Acts and regulations in a single term of Parliament, to consistently producing above 20,000 (and sometimes close to 40,000). Before 1965, there were only two Acts or Regulations that were longer than 400 pages, but there have been 210 that have equalled or exceeded that length since then.
Today, the statute book is growing at an unprecedentedly fast rate, and this growth has been accelerating. For example, the 46th Parliament beginning on 20 May 2019 saw more than 111,000 new pages of legislation made, compared to 90,000 in the 44th Parliament that ended on 9 May 2016. A concise statute book is now but a faint echo from the deep past.
While the Universe is composed of fundamental units called atoms, our Universe of Law is composed of words. From these simple materials have come all manner of creations. Over time, the complexity of these creations has greatly increased.
Consider the use of defined terms. Today, there are over 49,000 defined terms in use across Commonwealth Acts. Since 1998, at least 1000 new definitions have appeared each year in new Acts. While many of these definitions help to clarify meaning, some have simply increased complexity.
For example, the ALRC has previously identified that the term ‘property’ is differently defined more than 17 times in the Corporations Act 2001 – making that legislation extremely difficult to understand.
The complexity of our Universe of Law is also a result of its interconnected nature. Figure 2 illustrates the extent to which some laws exert powerful forces upon others. It shows every in-force Act of the Australian Parliament as yellow points, the size of which depends on the length of the legislation.
The lines represent cross-references between Acts, where one Act refers in its text to another Act. The width of the lines represents the number of cross-references. The six Acts with the most cross-references are highlighted by name.
Figure 2: Cross-references between Commonwealth Acts.
An alternative representation is provided by Figure 3, which offers a more distant view than Figure 2. It highlights corporations and financial services in red. All other legislation is blue, and the size of the nodes depends on each Act’s page length. Images like this give some perspective on how large and interconnected our Universe of Law really is.
Figure 3: The messiness of cross-references between Commonwealth Acts.
The complexity of our Universe of Law is of particular concern to the ALRC, and several pages and data sets on the DataHub are dedicated to shining a light on this issue. Currently, it can take many light-years to navigate and understand even a fraction of our vast body of law. We are hopeful that the DataHub will further a discussion about the causes of complexity, and potential solutions.
The tendency to disorder
In the Universe, chaos is more common than order. There are simply more ways for matter to be distributed in a disorderly manner than an orderly one. For instance, there are more ways for sand to form a shambolic pile than a sculpted sandcastle.
So too in our Universe of Law. Without constant care and attention, law can easily fall into disrepair. The challenge has grown as the diversity of legislation has exploded, making it harder for our law-makers to maintain.
Figure 4 shows all Commonwealth Acts of Parliament, with significant areas of lawmaking coloured according to their subject-matter and the size of each node dependent on the number of pages in each Act. The ‘red giants’ are the Income Tax Assessment Acts of 1936 and 1997. The figure highlights the eclectic diversity of our statute book, which is as varied as the sparkling stars in the night sky.
Figure 4: The diverse subject matter of Commonwealth Acts.
Reflecting the challenge of keeping legislation up-to-date, the proportion of Commonwealth legislation that amends other legislation has been steadily increasing. Amending legislation now constitutes more than 70% of new legislation, up from less than 20% in the early 1900s.
Figure 5 shows the number of amendments made to in-force Commonwealth Acts since 1901. Some have seen change on a truly galactic scale, including the Social Security Act 1991, which has had thousands of distinct amendments.
Figure 5: Number of amendments to principal Commonwealth Acts.
Our obligation to cherish and preserve
While the Universe of stars and planets is governed by laws of its own, the Universe of Law is of our own making. We are connected to it in a very real sense. We write it and we are governed by it. Its fate is our fate.
One only needs to peer into social worlds where legal systems are absent or ineffective to appreciate law’s beneficial effects. But whether our Universe of Law will continue to cradle and support us – or will swallow us whole into a black void – will depend on what we do now to improve and protect it.
The ALRC hopes that users of our legal system will be able to glean new insights from the case studies and data sets available through the DataHub, and help further a discussion about how our Universe of Law can be improved for the benefit of all.
To learn more about the ALRC’s DataHub, see the DataHub homepage. You can also find out how ALRC data has been used to offer insights on lawmaking during the Covid-19 pandemic, issues of Law, War, and Peace, and a history of the Australian statute book.
Dr William Isdale and Nicholas Simoes da Silva are Senior Legal Officers at the Australian Law Reform Commission.