Historic legal opinions database, book and website

On Tuesday 28 May 2013, the Attorney-General the Hon Mark Dreyfus QC MP launched the third volume of Opinions of Attorneys-General of the Commonwealth of Australia with opinions of Solicitors-General and the Attorney-General's Department. It tells the national story in the period 1923–45 from a unique perspective. The legal advice published in this volume grapples with the significant challenges to the welfare of Australia's people during this time, including the Great Depression and the Second World War. The publication was a joint project of AGS and the Attorney-General's Department (AGD).

The first and second volumes were published in 1981 and 1988 respectively and, until now, were only available in print. However, with the publication of the third volume, the content of all 3 volumes – covering selected opinions from federation and the creation of the Commonwealth in 1901 to shortly after the Second World War in 1945 – was published online at the new Legal Opinions website (www.legalopinions.ags.gov.au) as a combined project of AGS, AGD and the National Archives of Australia (NAA).

The launch also marked the completion of the project to digitise significant opinions from 1901 to 1923 which were not in either the published volumes or our internal 85,000-strong electronic Opinions Database. The only copy of many opinions in this period, including opinions by Alfred Deakin and other early Attorneys, was the hard-copy bound year-by-year volumes of the Opinion Book which were held by the NAA. However, these are in a poor condition and deteriorating rapidly and, without digitisation, they would have been lost forever. So AGS, AGD and the NAA jointly funded this project that digitised all the paper opinions from 1901 to 1923.

Attended by an audience of 95, the launch was held in the conference centre of 4 National Circuit, which will be the new office location for AGS Canberra from September 2013. The speakers included the Attorney-General the Hon Mark Dreyfus QC MP; James Faulkner SC, General Counsel (Constitutional), Office of Constitutional Law, AGD; Roger Wilkins AO, Secretary, AGD; CEO Ian Govey; and Robert Orr PSM QC.

In his speech, Ian Govey noted that the projects met AGS's mandate of maintaining the corporate memory of Commonwealth legal practice and advice and that, 'one important way we fulfil this role is by keeping the electronic database of current and historical legal advice to the Commonwealth. There are no better examples of our delivery on this mandate to maintain the Commonwealth's corporate memory of legal practice than the 3 projects we launch today, the third volume of the opinions book, the website of all
3 volumes of opinions and the digitisation of significant opinions from 1901 to 1923.'

He continued: 'The availability of all 3 volumes of opinions online gives greater exposure to these opinions. It will make them much more accessible to historians, students and generally to the citizens of Australia. The Freedom of Information Act notes the strong link between principles of representative democracy and availability of government information. While this initiative makes available historical legal advice, and not current advice, it is nonetheless a significant step in providing much greater accessibility to legal opinions which formed a key part of the working of the Commonwealth Government.'

This is an extract from the 2012–13 AGS annual report