CD-Rom makes for a simple Simon

The tax specialists' bible is being shrunk from 11 hefty volumes to one disc, writes Roger Trapp

The clamour for reform of Britain's tax system is gathering pace - with the recent annoucement of a review aimed at simplifying it. But as the financial year gets under way, practitioners face legislation that is more complex than last year's.

A few, though, have picked up a little electronic help to guide them through the maze of modern tax law. In recent months, Butterworth's, the legal and accountancy publisher, has begun rolling out the first part of a complete computerisation of its tax texts.

The publication on CD-Rom of Simon's Taxes - widely regarded as the bible of its field - is not just an exercise in keeping up with the times. The company points to market research carried out among accountants, solicitors and barristers and covering every aspect of the field as demonstrating that, while there is widespread satisfaction with its existing products, quick access to the information and regular updating are key requirements. And both can be satisfied with information technology.

The traditional obstacle to this route is a certain technophobia among professionals. But Butterworth's believes its link with the creators of "Books on Screen" gives it an edge over other publishers in this respect.

Books on Screen is a software package that replicates the look and feel of a book. It is designed to enable users to make an easy transition from traditional paper sources to electronic ones, so it has an identical layout to the book it is based on and even allows the professional to mark relevant passages with the familiar yellow stickers.

But this electronic innovation is not just a copy of the old texts with a few updating additions. Butterworth's has used the opportunity to act on the market research findings and revise the whole of Simon's Direct Tax Service. In particular, it has recognised the importance of the index by replacing professional index compilers with more expensive tax experts.

The aim, says Christine Durman, executive director of Butterworth's, is "to improve an already good service by making it even easier for users to find what they are looking for. Information is accessible in a matter of seconds."

But she does not underestimate the size of the task that has recently been completed. "Each set of Simon's Direct Tax Service contains 17,000 pages. The total print run is over 100 million pages, which laid end to end would stretch for over 15,000 miles - or from London to Beijing and back," she says.

Those who opt for the electronic version, however, get just one disc and can refer to several of the total 11 volumes simultaneously. The company claims that the appeal of this has been so great that it has been shipping an unprecedented 100 CDs a month since the launch earlier this year. Touche Ross and KPMG are among the leading firms that have signed up for it, while talks are progressing with the Inland Revenue.

While not ignoring the space benefits, Mrs Durman believes the key reason for moving to the CD-Rom is the time it saves. With legislation set to remain difficult to interpret for some time yet, any reduction in the time spent on research has got to be good for both the practitioner and the client.

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