An obscure statute dating from Confederation has Parliament frozen in time, forcing the government to print every new law on old-fashioned paper.

Bureaucrats want to ditch those rules, end the costly printing and make digital versions the new standard — but the Liberal government has yet to decide whether to break with tradition.

At issue is the Publication of Statutes Act, conceived in the 19th century, which requires the Queen's Printer to publish new laws passed by Parliament in an annual compendium that must be printed on quality paper.

Judy Foote

A briefing note to Public Services Minister Judy Foote says an old-fashioned law is costing taxpayers about $100,000 each year in unnecessary printing costs. (CBC)

The legislation has never been overhauled. Although Justice Canada publishes the laws online as well, the digital versions aren't considered official.

Each year, the Queen's Printer — now part of Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) — must print and distribute about 250 hardcover copies of the annual statutes, destined for a select group of judges, legal libraries and other locations.

The total cost is estimated at about $100,000, including $40,000 worth of printing and distribution through a private firm.

The format is meticulously spelled out in a regulation that helps keep printing costs high:

"The annual Statutes of Canada shall be printed on Number 1 Opaque Litho Book according to Canadian Government Specifications Board Standard 9-GP-29, Grade 2, Type 1, (except moisture content) or equivalent in white colour, English finish, and the basic weight shall be 100 pounds per 1,000 sheets 25 inches by 38 inches."

The detailed specifications continue for three more paragraphs.

Deputy minister makes the case

Last May, a senior official at PSPC pressed the new minister, Judy Foote, to fix the problem, according to a briefing note obtained by CBC News.

"The requirement to print the Annual Statutes predates modern electronic communications (some provisions have not been amended since the 19th century) and does not foster the timely and efficient access to federal legislation for Canadians," deputy minister Marie Lemay said.

'It is important to proceed as soon as possible.' - Senior federal bureaucrat urging an end to mandatory paper editions of the laws of Canada

Lemay called for the repeal of the regulation, and amendments to the Publication of Statutes Act and other laws to haul Parliament into the digital era. The process would require formal notices, legal drafting and the backing of Parliament, and would take months.

But Foote's spokesperson said rookie members of Parliament need to be updated on the issue before the government decides whether to scrap the printing requirement.

Regulations governing the printing of Statutes of Canada

A regulation spells out in minute detail just how the annual Statutes of Canada are to appear in book form. (CBC)

"As the Annual Statutes contain important information for elected members and many MPs are in their first term, Minister Foote, in consultation with the deputy minister, has determined that the department will formally consult with MPs and senators before making any changes to the delivery format," press secretary Jessica Turner said in an email.

But Lemay had specifically cautioned against delay in her briefing note last spring.

"It is important to proceed … as soon as possible," she wrote. "On January 1, 2016, Justice Canada changed the layout of its laws and regulations. They are now incompatible with the format of the Annual Statutes as required."

"Consequently, it will be impossible to print the 2016 Statutes."

Needs repeal

A PSPC spokesperson confirmed that the regulation spelling out the printing format will have to be repealed in order to print the 2016 statutes to the new Justice Canada standard. The 2016 print edition is slated to be distributed in early 2018.

"It is too early in the process to determine their number and cost," spokesperson Jean-Francois Letourneau said of the latest edition.

Question Period 20170307

Finance Minister Bill Morneau's 2017 budget, to be released Wednesday, is expected to cost $554,000 to print. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Some 250 copies of the hardcover, two-volume 2015 statutes were delivered to the government on Feb. 2.

CBC News recently reported that Finance Canada plans to spend a record $554,000 to produce paper copies of the 2017 budget, to be released Wednesday.

The previous Conservative government cut in half the number of paper copies of its 2015 budget, to 5,550 from 11,500 in 2014. The Liberals increased the number to 6,100 in their inaugural 2016 budget.

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