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Law provides way to authenticate online legal materials

The Internet is a bottomless reservoir of information, opinions, conspiracies and stories.

It can be difficult to tell fact from fiction.

However, a recently signed bill in California aims to give attorneys and law students unwavering confidence that the research they've uncovered is the real deal.

The Uniform Electronic Legal Material Act (UELMA) was signed last month by Gov. Jerry Brown, making California only the second state in the nation to have a mechanism for authenticating online legal materials. It will be enacted on July 1, 2015.

"It's a big step in the right direction," said Brent Bernau, president of the San Diego Area Law Libraries. "Most people are using electronic versions of the law nowadays anyway. The only problem is [those materials] are not the official version. This law establishes an electronic version as an official and authentic document, so you don't have to run to a book if you have to cite it or use it as evidence in court."

UELMA 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.

The bill addresses many of the concerns posed by the publication of legal material online. And it ensures that electronic material that has been deemed official will be preserved and permanently available to the public in unaltered form.

The bill further sets forth policies of accountability and transparency in providing legal information to the public.

"It makes it easier for people to [do legal research]," said Bernau, who is the collections development librarian at the University of San Diego School of Law. "You don’t have to go to the law library. You can do research from wherever you want to do it."

He also said it benefits the law libraries themselves.

"Because of budget cuts, libraries have to watch their space. They can't keep adding shelves for books indefinitely. This gives libraries the opportunity to rely on electronic materials."

UELMA applies to electronic legal material that has been designated official by California's Office of Legislative Counsel.

The legislation specifically names four categories of basic state legal material eligible to be authenticated: the state Constitution, state session laws, codified laws and agency regulations that have the effect of law. The state has the discretion to include any other publications it desires.

The law requires that legal material be authenticated by providing a method to determine that it is unaltered. Additionally, it requires the material to be preserved, either in electronic or print form, and accessible for use by the public on a permanent basis.

"It's [an issue] that's been around," Bernau said. "It's frustrating when you're trying to help with research, and you find the statutes online but you can't trust them. Now you can trust them. I think it's overdue."

UELMA was enacted in Colorado earlier this year. It's also been introduced this year in Connecticut, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Tennessee.

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1 UserComments
David McFadden 1:18pm October 9, 2012

Thank you so much for your story about the Uniform Electronic Legal Materials Act (UELMA). I would like to clarify one point. S.B. 1075, California’s version of UELMA, only covers the Constitution, the California statutes and California Codes. As a uniform law, states have some flexibility in what to include and possibly administrative materials and cases will be added at a later date.