A Defence of Plain HTML for Law:
Figure 1: Standard set of navigational aids for legislation
Also, consistency in the naming structure of our links does facilitate the recognition process.
Features that are flexible enough to cater to both inexperienced and experienced users should be provided. The effective use of hypertext links can provide the necessary flexibility and efficiency. AustLII has made its site very amenable to 'bookmarking' through its site structure and the stability of its URLs. Bookmarking allows users to efficiently return to the place in the AustLII site structure that is of interest to them. Also, this provides an efficient way for users to create links to the site which is an important aspect of AustLII's public access objective.
It is crucial, given the nature of the information AustLII provides, that the design of the site does not include elements that will be likely to distract or slow down the transfer of information. We have adopted a fairly minimalist approach to the use of graphics and other emerging technologies that place an unduly technical burden on our users. For example, the new AustLII homepage has only one main graphic which is the AustLII logo.
The new AustLII interface will provide a more detailed response when a user encounters errors. For example, there will be more suggestions when a user has entered a wrong search syntax, for example. It seems that misspelling of search terms is a common problem. Users may not realise that they have misspelt the term and when the system responds with 'zero results', the user often assumes that the system has behaved abnormally and seeks points of clarification through AustLII's feedback facility. One possible approach to minimise this problem is to highlight the words entered in the search that returned no documents and to advise when these are common words.
Currently, AustLII makes available a number of guides downloadable from our web site which provide information about how to use its services. There is also a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) which provides answers to some commonly asked questions. Also, we provide a feedback facility for users to send in their queries via email concerning any aspects of AustLII and its services. Over the coming months, we will be embarking on a new cycle in the development of new materials and exploring ways to introduce new users to AustLII and its services. We are also investigating innovative approaches to integrate the documentation into our site so that users feel that help is available and nearby if they need it.
The brief discussion above provides some of the bases for considering the impact of a number of web technologies and standards on accessibility and usability in relation to a large legal web site such as AustLII. In particular, we will be focusing on the use of frames, portable document format (PDF), images, and metadata.
The development of frames has resulted in many debates as to its relevancy and usability. Its initial implementation failed to impress many web design experts at the time. Many voiced philosophical objections to a frame-based model which was considered to undermine the original model of the 'page' which is considered to be a single unit of information brought to the user by a single unit of navigation and is easily retrievable by a single address. Among them was Jacob Nielsen who commented that 'with frames, the user's view of information on the screen is now determined by a sequence of navigation actions rather than a single navigation action' (Nielsen; 1996b).
Others have provided more practical reasons for not using frames. There are navigational problems since the address or location refers only to the first level of the frameset and not the individual frames (Muehlbauer; 1998). Rosenfeld and Morville have also pointed out that the use of frames may take up valuable screen space, may affect display speed as well as increasing the complexity of the page design (Rosenfeld et al; 1998, pp 61-62). Further, there is a security vulnerability with using a frame-based model known as 'frame spoofing' on some web browsers. This allows a malicious attacker to insert information into a frame within another site's window In addition, for printing purposes, the user can only print a frame at a time but not the whole page.
As frames may crash older browsers and may behave differently on different browsers, the 'full and complete ability to interact with the site' may be affected. While more recent implementations of frames have reduced some of the variations in behaviour, nevertheless, this does have considerable accessibility and usability implications. Further, text browsers such as Lynx still have problems when dealing with frames which may be problematic for users that rely on such browsers. Of course, one way to deal with this issue would be to provide a 'No Frames' version of the page which is fairly common on many web sites. However, this tends to increase the cost of maintaining the site.
One of the most important issues for AustLII is the ability for other sites to make links to materials on this site. This means that we need to have a consistent and transparent link scheme with which our site is based. With a frame-based model, the URL of the pages within the frame are 'hidden' from the user. More effort from the user is required in order to find out the location of the resource such as having to open a new browser window. It is this feature of a frame-based model that prevents AustLII from considering this technology as a possibility to be used for the materials that we wish to make available to the public which includes our primary and secondary materials databases.
A frame-based model might work in a situation when there is a homogeneity in the equipment used. For example, if there was total control over what browser is being used for viewing pages then a frame-based model may be a possibility. However, the diversity of the users served by AustLII means that we have to deal with many different types of browsers. Also, it has been suggested that when bookmarking and linking to specific pages are not critical, then it may be reasonable to adopt a frame-based system (Musciano; 1999). An example of this is a multi-page form where the user will be less inclined to bookmark a page in the middle of filling out a form.
Portable Document Format or PDF files have been heralded as a new cross-platform way of delivering visually rich content via the Internet. It is true that when PDF files are printed, they maintain most of the formatting and layout of the original documents While this may be useful from a print-medium perspective, there are a number of accessibility and usability problems with this format for web sites in general and legal web sites in particular.
Adobe Systems, the owner of PDF, has acknowledged that 'For the visually disabled, there are some accessibility issues associated with PDF and the use of Adobe Acrobat viewers for viewing PDF files' (Adobe Systems; 1999). This has resulted in a site that is set up to deal with accessibility issues. The fact that this is done highlights the severity of the problem. Text based browsers will not be able to view this type of file as they require a special plug-in to be installed on the user's system. In other words, the user needs to install Acrobat Reader and then will also have to install an Acrobat access patch so that PDF files can be converted back to HTML or ASCII text. The quality of the conversion varies fairly dramatically and so the end result may not be useful for a user with special needs even after going through such a lengthy process. This is an example of a tool that may be accessible but potentially be creating inaccessible content (< http://trace.wisc.edu/docs/eitaac-l/web/eitaac.9901/msg00049.html> as at 2 July 1999).
Even for the user with a graphical browser and an appropriate plug in, reading the document on screen is still fairly difficult as the PDF file has been optimised for print. Generally, legal documents are text based and do not have a very complex layout in which case the user is more interested in the content and structure of the document than the presentation layout. It is important that the user knows where each section is but does it really matter if each section begins with a 2cm indent?
As a format for information retrieval and searching purposes, PDF leaves much to be desired. Generally, PDF files present a great difficulty as files to be indexed for searching as they are stored in a proprietary and binary format which can even be stored as image-only PDF. This means that user has to download the whole file before it can be used in any way. The user then will either browse or perform a 'Find' to see if the information being sought is in the file. It may be possible to extract the text from a PDF file if it was not stored as image-only PDF. However, the extra tools required and the extra time needed means that the whole process may become fairly inefficient.
As AustLII encourages other sites to link to its materials, it is crucial that the location of the materials is transparent and easily obtainable. Further, we are working to allow better ways of linking to materials on AustLII. For example, it is desirable to be able to refer to a specific section of a piece of legislation: s10 of the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) and be able to link to it directly. This type of pinpoint citation for legislation is achieved by AustLII through dividing an act into individual sections and being able to provide a transparent and consistent URL for linking. However, using PDF alone, this option only allows the user to download the complete Act or case, but does not allow for the convenience of being able to 'jump' to a specific section or paragraph.
While we have argued that PDF cannot be the primary delivery medium for our materials due to AustLII's public access policy, this is not to say that PDF should not be used as an alternative mechanism for access to materials. This is especially the case for sites wanting to make the materials available quickly and/or would wish the materials to look much the same as the print version. Also, it may be necessary to provide material in this format where there is no alternative means of making it available. This is true in the provision of much of the multi-lingual materials on the Web. However, as noted in the arguments put forward above, PDF should not be the only delivery mechanism if accessibility is the main concern.
AustLII strongly believes that unless an image adds to the meaning of the page, provides an appropriate navigational aid, or provides a suitable context, then it should not be placed on the page. Since the inception of AustLII in 1995, only a small number of images are used on the whole site. These included the AustLII logo and banner; images for 'new', 'announcement', 'updated', and a 'search' icon. This minimalist philosophy is carried forward to the new design of AustLII's web site (see Figure 2 above). The quantity and the size of images affect page level usability in terms of the possible distractions and longer load time that may result. Any unnecessary delay in downloading a document is a penalty from a user's perspective. It is possible to provide both a graphic-intensive page and a non-graphical page but this would mean an extra page to maintain.
This is not to say that larger images should not be used on the site. There are situations where graphics or images are necessary especially if they are 'content' images. There are decisions and legislation which require the use of images to convey the appropriate meaning. For example, in a trade mark case, it is necessary for the trade mark in question which is part of a decision to be available as an image online. This provides the context for the decision. In fact, a decision may include a number of graphics dealing with possible trade mark infringements. Also, in the case of some acts, formulae need to be expressed as an image. This is problematic for users who rely on non-graphical based systems. While work is underway for a mark up language to handle mathematical formulae which allows text based system to process the details, it is still more common for them to be converted to a graphic and displayed on a page as an image.
Image maps affect site level usability in the sense that there are navigational problems associate with using them. Image links do not provide visual cues for the user that the links have been traversed since they do not change colour after the user clicks them (User Interface Engineering; 1996 ). Text based browsers will have problems dealing with image maps and extra programming effort is required to make this work and thus increases the cost of maintenance.
The current use of animation on web sites 'walks a fine line between added value and aggravation' (Vaughan; 1996). Animations are more of a distraction than an aid from the point of view of a web searcher. It is highly likely that the user will be distracted from the information gathering process. Also, some less technically competent users may decide to wait for the 'image' to finish downloading and it may be a while before the user realises that this will not happen (User Interface Engineering; 1996). Animations are purely graphically oriented and thus will be problematic for those using text based browsers. Generally, they do not add meaning to the page.
Metadata refers to data about data or in the web context, metadata is 'machine understandable information about web resources or other things (Berners-Lee; 1997). It has been suggested that metadata has the potential to be used by search engines to increase the quality of information retrieval and resource discovery on large, widely distributed networks such as the Internet (Wood; 1997). From AustLII's perspective, we are interested in the resource implications of the implementation and maintainability of a system for metadata storage and retrieval.
There is a push especially among large government agencies for the full deployment of a metadata scheme. It should be noted that essentially, government agencies prepare their own materials and thus maintain overall control of the content. This will at least provide an opportunity for metadata to be inserted, if appropriate, at source. However, AustLII receives data from many different sources over which it has no control. Attempting to incorporate metadata manually for an organisation like AustLII would be too resource intensive since over 1.5 million pages (as at July 1999) are involved. This is especially the case when attempting to 'catalogue' the resources used in the same way as a library catalogue.
One implementation scheme of metadata would be to incorporate the information in the HTML documents using <META> tags that are based on a content encoding scheme. However, due to the potential abuse of metadata, some search engines will not even index the information held in the <META> tags. For any metadata scheme to work effectively, if at all, there needs to be some standards in terms of content encoding schemes which take into account of resource implications. This is especially true for courts and tribunals which may have different systems in place. Metadata may be captured in different ways in the sense that the proper use of consistent styles in decisions of courts and tribunals would have provided a great deal of metadata to be able to enhance the functionality of the documents.
AustLII does use a limited form of metadata which is either generated automatically during the markup process or is inherent in the resource itself. Currently, the <TITLE> tag information is used for searching and displaying purposes. In the case of decisions, the decision date is also kept. Some of the benefits of using metadata may be obtained by using a more 'intelligent' full-text searching mechanism with an appropriate ranking algorithm. This may be a more practical alternative for the time being while more elements of metadata may be incorporated over time.
Most considerations of metadata have been focused on improving the quality of search results at considerable expense. However, from the perspective of accessibility and usability in relation to viewing, it is clear that the most popular versions of browsers do not make use of any metadata that is contained on web pages. This adds further to the opportunity cost of maintaining a complicated set of metadata when there is very limited or no support from the client end.
While fully structured materials with differentiated layout, complicated metadata and ratings mechanisms can be used, we believe that a simple approach can be utilised for maintaining 'universal web access' and still be practicable within the various constraints faced by AustLII.
Over the last couple of years, there has been considerable interest from courts and tribunals throughout Australia to adopt a convention for citing cases and decisions which does not depend on a particular medium or a particular publisher or vendor. The citation is assigned by the court or tribunal concerned. The High Court of Australia, Federal Court of Australia, Family Court of Australia as well as Supreme Courts of all the states and territories have adopted this convention. The medium neutral citation is based on the names of the parties, the year of the decision, the designator of the court or tribunal and a decision number. For example, a decision from the High Court of Australia may be cited as: Sue v Hill  HCA 30.
For its part, AustLII has actively participated in the development and promotion of the use of medium neutral citation to all courts and tribunals. Individual courts and other standards bodies have produced guidelines and recommendations in relation to the use of medium neutral citation for decisions. The recently released AIJA Guide to Uniform Production of Judgments provides further impetus for the development of standards beyond citation into other standards such as the use of consistent styles and 'content tagging' of the actual decisions (Olsson; 1999). Greater participation and consideration by the courts and other interested bodies in relation to standards will improve the quality of the data at source. As a result, organisations such as AustLII will be able to add value and make better use of the data. This in turn will make the materials more accessible and usable.
The willingness of the courts and tribunals in Australia to adopt a medium and vendor neutral citation means that not only will users be able to cite decisions as they are made available on the Internet or on any other type of medium, it will also provide a mechanism for AustLII to improve on the transparency and consistency of its links structure. It is now possible for some databases to provide a greater accuracy and precision of the reference being cited. For example, in the Supreme Court of Victoria database, paragraph 30 of R v Coombe  VSCA 94 can be precisely linked to.
As can be seen from the example above, the URL for the reference resembles the medium neutral citation assigned by the Court. This enhanced level of accessibility and usability is derived from the Court adopting the medium neutral citation mechanism as well as the use of consistent styles in its decisions so that paragraphs can be identified during the conversion and mark up process.
The success of the Web is mainly due to the fact that it provides authors with a cheap and easy way of distributing electronic documents to a worldwide audience. The basis for the transmission of documents on the Web has been HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) which is 'a simple markup language for creating hypertext documents that are platform independent'. HTML has focused on ease of use and several versions of the HTML specifications have evolved. These have been mainly due to the pressures from the creators of the browser software. Traditionally, HTML was supposed to separate the structure from the layout of a document. It was supposed to be left to the browser to display the contents within the tags. However, the desire to control the presentation of web pages has resulted in a number of 'format' tags being introduced into the HTML specification or extensions to the HTML specification. This is most evident in the HTML 3.2 version of the specification.
The HTML 2.0 specification, which reflected the state of play as at June 1994, is the baseline standard for all browsers available today. AustLII has tried to select tags from this version of the HTML specification as they will be displayed by most browsers. The current standard, HTML 4.0, does have some accessibility tags as part of its specification. Some of these may be appropriate provided they degrade gracefully for older browsers.
On the horizon, there is an emerging standard known as XML (Extensible Markup Language) which is supposed to address the limitations of HTML and will be more flexible and extensible. The extensibility feature of XML will allow new tags to be defined as needed and allow data to be modelled to a greater level of complexity. Perhaps, this will provide an opportunity for a common set of XML tags to be developed for courts and tribunals in Australia and one set developed for legislative materials. Also, applying appropriate XML schemas may be a more appropriate approach in capturing and maintaining metadata about documents than using the <META> tag scheme of HTML. For example, some of the new backend applications to be used by AustLII are using XML as the data exchange format. The use of XML will provide greater functionality to the server and client software. The media independence of XML allows the same content to be published in multiple media and thus makes the information more accessible and usable by different browsing technology. While XML shows a lot of promise for the future of information exchange, the extent and compatibility to which it will be supported by the new 5.0 browsers remains to be seen.
In this paper, we have endeavoured to show that there is virtue in simplicity. We have considered a number of accessibility and usability issues with an AustLII perspective. As Terry Sullivan points out (Sullivan; 1999, p42):
Simpler is more stable and less prone to error.
Simpler is more compatible.
Simpler is easier to maintain.
Simpler is easier to use.
We have presented our views in relation to a number of web technologies and why they may or may not be appropriate for achieving AustLII's objective of maximising public access to legal information. We have also shown the benefits of adhering to standards in terms of general web standards as well as more legal specific standards. Ultimately, it is up to the producers of information as well as users of information to work together in producing consistent and well-structured documents as the Web moves from being a mechanism for information dissemination to a mechanism for information exchange.
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1. Using the translation service available through AltaVista, a feature is made available as a standard link from World Law whereby contents on the page being viewed can be translated between six languages. This 'Translate' feature may be considered as an inclusion on AustLII databases which may be useful especially for translating short menu items.
2. The community legal information project at AustLII is attempting to address this particular issue.
3. Some accessibility guidelines can be found at:
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (as at 22 June 1999).
Central Reference Document - Version 8 - Unified Web Site Accessibility Guidelines (as at 22 June 1999).
AUS Accessibility Standards (as at 22 June 1999).
5. More information - see Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's guidelines (as at 22 June 1999).
8. A GVU WWW User Survey conducted in October 1998 indicated that 35% of those responded have connection speeds no more than 33.6 Kb/s. See more detailed results (as at 12 July 1999). It is reasonable to assume that Australia would be in a similar situation. The situation in some countries in Asia concerning bandwidth and equipment availability is discussed in Greenleaf (1998).
9. For more information about AustLII's involvement with community legal information, see the paper presented by Davis (1999). Also of interest from the Reconciliation and Social Justice Project is one presented by McCann (1999).
12. Depending on how the PDF file was created, it may not even print properly due to problems with the fonts used and the version of the software drivers. For example, a bug in Adobe's Acrobat Reader version 3.01 makes some graphics virtually unreadable when printed. This means that on some occasions, PDF does not even perform one of its primary functions.
14. However, it should be noted that some parts of our secondary materials contain pages that are more graphic-intensive. This is the case where pages have been created by an external organisation but are hosted on AustLII.
16. One suggested content encoding scheme is known as the Dublin Core. However, it should be noted that from a recent analysis of 2500 randomly found web server, only 0.3% of these sites use this scheme: (Lawrence et al; 1999, pp 107-109).
17. The problem of 'metatag stuffing' is one of the reasons why AustLII is reluctant to index any information held in <META> tags for resources not directly available on AustLII as is the case in World Law since those materials originated from external sites. See an example of the ' metatag stuffing' problem (as at 12 July 1999).
18. The High Court of Australia, one of the earliest courts to adopt medium neutral citation, has provided a brief description of the medium neutral citation mechanism as used by the Court (as at 9 July 1999). The Supreme Court of New South Wales has also released recently its ' Guidelines on Judgments in Electronic Form' (as at 9 July 1999). Other organisations such as LISC (Legal Information Standards Council) have published recommendations for creating and using medium neutral citation (as at 9 July 1999).
20. Some extensions can be annoying for users such as the introduction of the <BLINK> tag.