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§.1.- Foreword

«If folksonomies work for pictures (Flickr), books (Goodreads), questions and answers (Quora), basically everything else (Delicious), why shouldn’t they work for law?» (Stefania Manzioli)

In a post on this blog, Stefania Manzioli distinguishes three uses of taxonomies in law: (1) for research of legal documents, (2) in teaching to law students, and (3) for its practical application.

In regard to her first point, she notes that (observation #1) to increase the availability of legal resources is compelling change of the whole information architecture, and – correctly, in my opinion – she exposes some objections to the heuristic efficiency of folksonomies: (objection #1) they are too “flat” to constitute something useful for legal research and (objection #2) it is likely that non-expert users could “pollute” the set of tags. Notwithstanding these issues, she states (prediction #1) that folksonomies could be helpful with non-legal users.

On the second point, she notes (observation #2) that folksonomies could be beneficial to study the law, because they could allow one to penetrate easier into its conceptual frameworks; she also formulates the hypothesis (prediction #2) that this teaching method could shape a more flexible mindset in students.

In discussing the third point, she notes (observation #3) that different taxonomies entail different ways of apply the law, and (prediction #3) she formulates the hypothesis that, in a distant perspective in which folksonomies would replace taxonomies, the result would be a whole new way to apply the law.

I appreciated Manzioli's post and accepted with pleasure the invitation of Christine Kirchberger – to whom I am grateful – to share my views with the readers of this prestigious blog. Hereinafter I intend to focus on the theoretical profiles that aroused my curiosity. My position is partly different from that of Stefania Manzioli.


§.2.- Introduction

In order to detect the issues stemming from folksonomies, I think it is relevant to give some preliminary clarifications.

In collective tagging systems, by tagging we can describe the content of an object – an image, a song or a document – label it using any lexical expression preceded by the “hashtag” (the symbol “#”) and share it with our friends and followers or also recommend it to an audience of strangers.

Folksonomies (blend of the words “taxonomy” and “folk”) are sets of categories resulting from the use of tags in the description of on line resources by the users, allowing a "many to many" connection between tags, users and resources.

Basic pattern of a folksonomy

Basic pattern of a folksonomy


Thomas Vander Wal coined the word a decade ago – ten years is really a long time in ICTs – and these technologies, as reported by Stefania Manzioli, have now been adopted in most of the social networks and e-commerce systems.

The main feature of folksonomies is that tags aggregate spontaneously in a semantic core; therefore, they are often associated with taxonomies or ontologies, although in these latter cases hierarchies and categories are established before the collection of data, as “a priori”.

Simplifying, I can say that tags may describe three aspects of the resources, using particulars  (i.e. a picture of a flowerpot lit by the sun):

(1) The content of the resources (i.e. #flowers),

(2) The interaction with other specific resources and the environment in general (i.e. #sun or #summer),

(3) The effect that these resources have on users having access to them (i.e. #beautiful).

Since it seems to me that none of these aspects should be disregarded in an overall assessment of folksonomies, I will consider all of them.

Having regard to law, they end to match with these three major issues:

(1) Law as a “content”. Users select legal documents among others available and choose those that seem most relevant. As a real interest is – normally – the driving criterion of the search, and as this typically is given by the need to solve a legal problem, I designate this profile with the expression «Quid juris?».

(2) Law as a “concept”. This problem emerges because the single legal document can not be conceived separately from the context in which it appears, namely the relations it has with the legal system to which it belongs. Consequently becomes inevitable to ask what the law is, as a common feature of all legal documents. Recalling Immanuel Kant in the "Metaphysics of Morals",  here I use the expression «Quid jus?».

(3) Law as a “sentiment”. What emerges in folksonomies is a subjective attitude that regards the meaning to be attributed to the research of resources and that affects the way in which it is performed. To this I intend to refer using the expression «Cur jus?».


§.3.- Folksonomies, Law, and «Quid juris?»: legal information management and collective tagging systems

In this respect, I agree definitely with Stefania Manzioli. Folksonomies seem to open very interesting perspectives in the field of legal information management; we admit, however, that these technologies still have some limitations. For instance: just because the resources are tagged freely, it is difficult to use them to build taxonomies or ontologies; inexperienced users classify resources less efficiently than the other, diluting all the efforts of more skilled users and “polluting" well-established catalogs; vice versa, even experienced users can make mistakes in the allocation of tags, worsening the quality of information being shared.

Though in some cases these issues can be solved in several ways –  i.e., the use of tags can be guided with the tag's recommendation, hence the distinction between broad and narrow folksonomies – and even if it can reasonably be expected that these tools will work even better in the future, for now we can say that folksonomies are useful just to integrate pre-existing classifications.

I may add, as an example, that an Italian law requires the creation of "user-created taxonomies (folksonomies)," "Guidelines for websites of public administrations" of 29 July 2011, page 20.  These guidelines have been issued pursuant to art. 4 of Directive 26th November 2009 n. 8, of the "Minister for Public Administration and Innovation", according to the Legislative Decree of 7 March 2005, n. 82, "Digital Administration Code" (O.J. n. 112 of 16th May 2005, S.O. n. 93). It may be interesting to point out that in Italian law the innovation in administrative bodies is promoted by a specific institution, the Agency for Digital Italy ("Agenzia per l'Italia Digitale"), which coordinates the actions in this field and sets standards for usability and accessibility. Folksonomies indeed fall into this latter category.

Following this path, a municipality (Turin) has recently set up a system of "social bookmarking" for the benefit of citizens called TaggaTO.


§.4.- Folksonomies, Law, and «Quid jus?»: the difference between the “map” and the “territory”

In this regard, my theoretical approach is different from that of Stefania Manzioli. Here is the reason our findings are opposite.

Human beings are "tagging animals", since labelling things is a natural habit. We can note it in common life: each of us, indeed, organizes his environment at home (we have jars with “salt” or “pepper” written on the caps) and at work (we use folders with “invoices” or “bank account” printed on the cover). The significance of tags is obvious if we consider using it with other people: it allows us to establish and share a common information framework. For the same reasons of convenience, tags have been included in most of the software applications we use (documents, e-mail, calendars) and, as said above, in many online services. To sum up, labels help us to build a representation of reality: they are tools for our knowledge.

In regard to reality and knowledge, it may be recalled that in the twentieth century there were two philosophical perspectives: the “continental tradition”, focused on the first (reality) and pretty much common in Europe, and the “analytic philosophy”, centered on the second (knowledge and widespread among USA, UK and Scandinavia. More recently, this distinction has lost much of its heuristic value and we have seen rising a different approach, the “philosophy of information”, which proposes, developing some theoretical aspects of cybernetics, a synthesis of reality and knowledge in an unifying vision that originates from a naturalistic notion of “information”.

I will try to simplify, saying that if reality is a kind of “territory”, and if taxonomies (and in general ontologies) can be considered as a sort of representation of knowledge, then they can be considered as “maps”.

In light of these premises, I should explain what to me “sharing resources” and “shared knowledge” mean in folksonomies. Folksonomies are a kind of “map”, indeed, but different than ontologies. In a metaphor: ontologies could be seen as “maps” created by a single geographer overlapping the reliefs of many “territories”, and sold indiscriminately to travelers; folksonomies could be seen as “maps” that inhabitants of different territories help each other to draw by telephone or by texting a message. Both solutions have advantages and disadvantages: the former may be detailed but more difficult to consult, while the latter may be always updated but affected by inaccuracies. In this sense, folksonomies could be said “antifragile” – according to the brilliant metaphor of Nassim Nicholas Taleb – because their value improves with increased use, while ontologies could be seen as "fragile", because of the linearity of the process of production and distribution.

Therefore, as the “map” is not the “territory”, reality does not change depending on the representation. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the “maps” are not helpful to travel to unknown “territories”, or to reach faster the destination even in “territories” that are well known (just like when driving in the car with the aid of GPS).

On the application of folksonomies to the field of law, I shall say that, after all, legal science has always been a kind of “natural folksonomy”. Indeed, it has always been a widespread knowledge, ready to be practiced, open to discussion, and above all perfectly “antifragile”: new legal issues to be solved determine a further use of the systems, thus causing an increase in knowledge and therefore a greater accuracy in the description of the legal domain. In this regard, Stefania Manzioli in her post also mentioned the Corpus Juris Civilis, which for centuries has been crucial in the Western legal culture. Scholars went to Italy from all over Europe to study it, at the beginning by noting few elucidations in the margins of the text (glossatores), then commenting on what they had learned (commentatores), and using their legal competences to decide cases that were submitted to them as judges or to argue in trials as lawyers.

Modern tradition has refused all of this, imposing a rationalistic and rigorous view of law. This approach – “fragile”, continuing with the paradigm of Nassim Nicholas Taleb – has spread in different directions, which simplifying I can lower to three:

(1) Legal imperativism: law as embodied in the words of the sovereign.

Leviathan (Thomas Hobbes)

Leviathan (Thomas Hobbes)

(2) Legal realism: law as embodied in the words of the judge.




(3) Legal formalism: law as embodied in administrative procedures.


The Castle (Franz Kafka)

The Castle (Franz Kafka)

For too long we have been led to pretending to see only the “map” and to ignore the “territory”. In my opinion, the application of folksonomies to law can be very useful to overcome these prejudices emerging from the traditional legal positivism, and to revisit a concept of law that is a step closer to its origin and its nature. I wrote “a step closer”; I'd like to clarify, to emphasize that the “map”, even if obtained through a participatory process, remains a representation of the “territory”, and to suggest that the vision known as the "philosophy of information" seems an attempt to overlay or replace the two terms – hence its “naturalism” – rather than to draw a “map” as similar as possible to the “territory”.


§.5- Folksonomies, Law and «Cur jus?»: the user in folksonomies: from “anybody” to “somebody"

This profile does not fall within the topics covered in Manzioli’s post, but I would like to take this opportunity to discuss it because it is the most intriguing to me.

Each of us arranges his resources according to the meaning that he intends to give his world. Think of how each of us arrays the resources containing information that he needs in his work: the books on the desk of a scholar, the files on the bench of a lawyer or a judge, the documents in the archive of a company. We place things around us depending on the problem we have to address: we use the surrounding space to help us find the solution.

With folksonomies, in general, we simply do the same in a context in which the concept of “space” is just a matter of abstraction.

What does it mean? We organize things, then we create “information”. Gregory Bateson in a very famous book, Steps to an Ecology of Mind – in which he wrote on “maps” and “territories”, too – stated that “information” is “the difference that makes the difference”. This definition, brilliant in its simplicity, raises the tremendous problem of the meaning of our existence and the freedom of will. This issue can be explained through an example given by a very interesting app called “Somebody”, recently released by the contemporary artist Miranda July.

The app works as follows: a message addressed to a given person is written and transmitted to another, who delivers it verbally. In other words, the actual recipient receives the message from an individual who is unknown to him. The point that fascinates me is this: someone suddenly comes out to tell that you “make a difference,” that you are not “anybody” because you are “somebody” for “somebody.” Moreover, at the same time this same person, since he is addressing you, becomes “somebody,” because the sender of the message chose him  among others, since he  “meant something” to him.

For me, the meaning of this amazing app can be summed up in this simple equation:


“Being somebody” = “Mean something” = “Make a difference”

This formula means that each of us believes he is worth something (“being somebody”), that his life has a meaning (“mean something”), that his choices or actions can change something – even if slightly – in this world (“make a difference”).

Returning to Bateson, if it is important to each of us to “make a difference”, if we all want to be “somebody”, then how could we settle down for recognize ourselves as just an “organizing agent”? Self-consciousness is related to semantics and to the freedom of choice: who is not free at all, does not create any “difference” in the world. Poetically, Miranda July makes people talk to each other, giving a meaning to humanity and a purpose to freedom: this is what “making a difference” means for humans.

In applying folksonomies to law, we should consider all this. It is true that folksonomies record the way in which each user arrays available legal documents, but it should be emphasized the purpose for which this activity is carried out. Therefore, it should be clear that an efficient cataloguing of resources depends on several conditions: certainly that the user shall know the law and remember its ontologies, but also that he shall be focused on what he is doing. This means that the user needs to be well-motivated, in order to recognize the value of what he is doing, so that to give meaning to his activity.


§.6- Conclusion

I believe that folksonomies can teach us a lot. In them we can find not only an extraordinary technical tool, but also – and most importantly – a reason to overcome the traditional legal positivism – which is “ontological” and therefore “fragile” – and thus rediscover the cooperation not only among experts, but also with non-experts, in the name of an “antifragile” shared legacy of knowledge that is called "law".

All this will work - or at least, it will work better - if we remember that we are human beings.


Federico Costantini

Federico Costantini. Lawyer and Researcher in Philosophy of Law (Legal informatics) in the Department of Legal sciences at the University of Udine (Italy). He holds a L.M.M. in Law and a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Law from the University of Padua (Italy).
His research moves among philosophy, computer science and law, focusing primarily on the struggle between technology and human nature.
He teaches Legal Informatics at the Faculty of Law of the University of Udine. His lectures on cyberlaw (especially in privacy, copyright and social networks) are aimed at bringing out the critical profiles of the "Information Society".


VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed.

Lessons Gained from Parliamentary Information Visualization (PIV)

The emerging topic of Parliamentary Informatics (PI) has opened up new terrain in the research of the scope, usefulness and contribution of Informatics to parliamentary openness and legislative transparency. This is pretty interesting when visualizations are used as the preferred method in order to present and interpret parliamentary activity that seems complicated or incomprehensible to the public. In fact, this is one of the core issues discussed, not only on PI scientific conferences but also on parliamentary fora and meetings.

The issue of Parliamentary Information Visualization (PIV) is an interesting topic; not only because visualizations are, in most cases, inviting and impressive to the human eye and brain. The main reason is that visual representations reveal different aspects of an issue in a systematic way, ranging from simple parliamentary information (such as voting records) to profound socio-political issues that lie behind shapes and colors. This article aims to explore some of the aspects related to the visualization of parliamentary information and activity.

Untangling the mystery behind visualized parliamentary information
Recent research on 19 PIV initiatives, presented in CeDEM 2014, has proven that visualizing parliamentary information is a complicated task. Its success depends on several factors: the availability of data and information, the choice of the visualization method, the intention behind the visualizations, and their effectiveness when these technologies are tied to a citizen engagement project.

To begin with, what has impressed us most during our research is the kind of information that was visualized. Characteristics, personal data and performance of Members of Parliament (MPs)/Members of European Parliament (MEPs), as well as political groups and member-states, are the elements most commonly visualized. On the other hand, particular legislative proposals, actions of MPs/MEPs through parliamentary control procedures and texts of legislation are less often visualized, which is, to some extent, understandable due to the complexity of visually depicting long legislative documents and the changes that accompany them.

Gregor Aisch – The Making of a Law visualization

Gregor Aisch – The Making of a Law visualization

However, visually representing a legislative text and its amendments might possibly reveal important aspects of a bill, such as time of submission, specific modifications that have been performed, and additions or deleted articles and paragraphs in the text.

Another interesting aspect is the visualization method used. There is a variety of methods deployed even for the visualization of the same category of Parliamentary Informatics. Robert Kosara notes characteristically: “The seemingly simple choice between a bar and a line chart has implications on how we perceive the data”.

In the same line of thought, in a recent design camp of the Law Factory project, two designer groups independently combined data for law-making processes with an array of visualization methods, in order to bring forward different points of view of the same phenomenon. Indeed, one-method-fits-all approaches cannot be applied when it comes to parliamentary information visualization. A phenomenon can be visualized both quantitatively and qualitatively, and each method can bring different results. Therefore, visualizations can facilitate plain information or further explorations, depending on the aspirations of the designer. Enabling user information and exploration are, to some extent, the primary challenges set by PIV designers. However, not all visualization methods permit the same degree of exploration. Or sometimes, the ability of in-depth exploration is facilitated by providing further background information in order to help end users navigate, comprehend and interpret the visualization.

Beyond information and exploration
Surely, a visualization of MPs’ votes, characteristics, particular legislative proposals or texts of legislation can better inform citizens. But is it enough to make them empowered? The key to this question is interaction. Interaction whether in the sense of human-computer interaction or human-to-human interaction in a physical or digital context, always refers to a two-way procedure and effect. Schrage notes succinctly: “Don’t view visualization as a medium that substitutes pictures for words but as interfaces to human interactions that create new opportunities for new value creation.”

When it comes to knowledge gained through this exploration, it is understandable that knowledge is useless if it is not shared. This is a crucial challenge faced by visualization designers, because the creation of platforms that host visualizations and enable further exchange of views and dialogue between users can facilitate citizen engagement. Additionally, information sharing or information provision through an array of contemporary and traditional means (open data, social media, printing, e-mail etc.) can render PIV initiatives more complete and inclusive.

An issue of information representation, or information trustworthiness?
Beyond the technological and functional aspects of parliamentary information visualization, it is interesting to have a look into information management and the relationship between parliaments and Parliamentary Monitoring Organizations (PMOs). As also presented by a relevant survey, PMOs serve as a hub for presenting or monitoring the work of elected representatives, and seem to cover a wide range of activities concerning parliamentary development. This, however, might not always be easily acceptable by parliaments or MPs, since it may give to elected representatives a feeling of being surveilled by these organizations.

To further explain this, questions such as who owns vs. who holds parliamentary information, where and when is this information published, and to what ends, raise deeper issues of information originality, liability of information sources and trustworthiness of both the information and its owners. For parliaments and politicians, in particular, parliamentary information monitoring and visualization initiatives may be seen as a way to surveil their work and performance, whereas for PMOs themselves these initiatives can be seen as tools for pushing towards transparency of parliamentary work and accountability of elected representatives. This discussion is quite multi-faceted, and goes beyond the scope of this post. What should be kept in mind, however, is that establishing collaboration between politicians/parliaments and civil society surely requires time, effort, trust and common understanding from all the parties involved. Under these conditions, PIV and PMO initiatives can serve as hubs that bring parliaments and citizens closer, with a view to forming a more trusted relationship.

Towards transparency?

Most PIV initiatives provide information in a way compliant with the principles of the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness. Openness is a necessary condition for transparency. But, then, what is transparency? Is it possible to come up with a definition that accommodates the whole essence of this concept?

Transparent labyrinth by Robert Morris, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City (Dezeen)

Transparent labyrinth by Robert Morris, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City (Dezeen)

In this quest, it is important to consider that neither openness nor transparency can exist without access to information (ATI). Consequently, availability and accessibility of parliamentary information are fundamental prerequisites in order to apply any technology that will hopefully contribute to inform, empower and help citizens participate in public decision-making.
Apart from that, it is important to look back in the definition, essence and legal nature of Freedom of Information (FOI) and Right to Information (RTI) provisions, as these are stated in the constitution of each country. A closer consideration of the similarities and differences between the terms “Freedom” and “Right”, whose meanings we usually take for granted, can provide important insight for the dependencies between them. Clarifying the meaning and function of these terms in a socio-political system can be a helpful start towards unraveling the notion of transparency.

Still, one thing is for sure: being informed and educated on our rights as citizens, as well as on how to exercise them, is a necessity nowadays. Educated citizens are able not only to comprehend the information available, but also search further, participate and have their say in decision-making. The example of the Right to Know initiative in Australia, based on the Alaveteli open-source platform, is an example of such an effort. The PIV initiatives researched thus far have shown that citizen engagement is a hard-to-reach task, which requires constant commitment and strive through a variety of tools and actions. In the long run, the full potential and effectiveness of these constantly evolving initiatives remains to be seen. In this context, legislative transparency remains in itself an open issue with many interesting aspects yet to be explored.


The links provided in the post are indicative examples and do not intend to promote initiatives or written materials for commercial or advertising purposes.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAspasia Papaloi is a civil servant in the IT and New Technologies Directorate of the Hellenic Parliament, a PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Communication and Media Studies of the University of Athens and a research fellow of the Laboratory of New Technologies in Communication, Education and the Mass Media, contributing as a Teaching Assistant. She holds an MA with specialization in ICT Management from the University of the Aegean in Rhodes and a Bachelor of Arts in German Language and Literature (Germanistik) from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Her research area involves e-Parliaments with a special focus on visualization for the achievement of transparency.

gouscosDimitris Gouscos is Assistant Professor with the Faculty of Communication and Media Studies of the University of Athens and a research fellow of the Laboratory of New Technologies in Communication, Education and the Mass Media, where he contributes to co-ordination of two research groups on Digital Media for Learning and Digital Media for Participation. His research interests evolve around applications of digital communication in open governance, participatory media, interactive storytelling and playful learning. More information available on


VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed.

US Law Code

c.c. BY-SA 3.0.

If you think that law isn't written for lawyers, try reading some.  It can even start looking normal after a while (say about the length of time it takes to get through law degree).  But research on the main street impact of legal language suggests that for most people, the law is likely to be either incomprehensible or very hard to read.

This problem is a focus of a research project which a team of us at ANU and Cornell LII have been addressing over the past months (Eric McCreath (Australian National University, Research School of Computer Science), Wayne Weibel (Cornell University Law School, Legal Information Insitute), Nic Ceynowa (LII), Sara Frug (LII), Tom Bruce (LII) and myself (ANU)).  With the generous help of thousands of LII users, as part of a citizen science project, we've been collecting data on the readability of law as well as demographic data about the users of law.

If you are concerned about access to law, and many are, the current situation is not really good enough.  Whether you tend to 'human rights', 'democratic values', 'economic efficiency', 'rule of law' or are just wanting to make sure your hapless minions follow your every command, you'll be able to think of a good reason why the law should be more accessible (readable) than it is.

Of course the problem has been around for a very long time, and plain language is a standing goal of many legislative drafting offices.  Reform efforts have been underway since the middle ages.  Certainly legal language has improved considerably, particularly as a result of 19th and 20th century reforms with that goal in mind.  Still, the law can't be said to be readily accessible to the general public, in the sense of its readability.

What has changed that makes the problem more urgent today is that the general public can now at least get to the law.  That's the revolution that's been achieved by online publishers of the law, including the Free Access to Law Movement and official and commercial law publishers.  As the UK's First Parliamentary Counsel observed last year:

Legislation affects us all. And increasingly, legislation is being searched for, read and used by a broad range of people. It is no longer confined to professional libraries; websites like have made it accessible to everyone. So the digital age has made it easier for people to find the law of the land; but once they have found it, they may be baffled. The law is regarded by its users as intricate and intimidating.

In 2010, the Plain Writing Act was adopted by the US Congress with the aim of improving government writing. Sad to say, the Act itself is no model of plain language. Section, sub-section and paragraph roll on, line after line, provision after convoluted provision. In substance they say not much more than: write clearly so that the public can understand and use what you write.  Didn't anyone see the irony?  Then again, reality check, most legislation is never read by the people who vote to make it law. Just to make sure the drawbridge was well and truly up, if you read through to the fine print at the end there is an important rider.  What happens if no one can understand what the law is supposed to mean? Well, nothing a judge can do about it.  Great aspiration, but ...

A sea change could be on the way, though. The Good Law initiative is one great example of efforts to address the complexity and readability of legislation. What is significant is that how we are thinking about legal rules is changing.  Official publishers of the law are beginning to talk about the law as if it's data.  The UK National Archives Office has even published an API -- Application Programmers Interface (basically a 'how to' for developers who want to use the "data").So now we're thinking of law as data.  And we're going to unleash computer scientists on it, to do whatever their imaginations can come up with. Bommarito and Katz' work on the legal code as a mathematical network is a great example of the virtually infinite possibilities.

Our own research uses the potential of computational technologies in another way. Online legal sites are not just 'documents'.  They are places where people are actively interacting with the law. We used crowd-sourcing to engage with this audience, asking them to rate law on readability characteristics as well as exploring the demographics of who uses the law. Our aim was to develop a labelled dataset that could be used as input to machine learning. "Labelled data" is machine learning gold -- hard to get, but if you can you get it, you can use it to make predictions about what human judges would say. In our case we are trying to predict whether a legal sentence will be readable or not.

In the process we learned quite a bit about the audience using the law, and about which law they use. Scouring the Google Analytics data, it became obvious that the law is not equally read. We may all be equal before the law, but the law is not equal before us. Just 37 sections of the US Code account for almost 10% of the page visits to US code pages (there are about 65,000). So a tiny fraction of the Code is being read all the time.  On the other hand there are huge swathes of the Code that hardly ever see the light of a back illuminated screen. This is not trivial news. Computer scientists love lists. Prioritised lists get their own special lectures for first year CS students -- and here we have a prioritized list. You want to know what law is at the top of your priority list -- the users will tell you. If you're concerned with cleaning up the law code or making it easier to understand, there's useful stuff here.

Ranking of sections by frequency of readership (on a logarithmic scale)

Ranking of sections by frequency of readership (on a logarithmic scale)

It will be no surprise that we found that law is harder for just about every part of the community than legal professionals.  What was surprising was that legal professionals (including law students), turn out to be a minority of those interested enough to respond, on the LII site at least.

These were just a few of the demographic insights we were able to draw.

On the machine learning front, we were able to show that machine learning can improve on traditional readability metrics  in predicting language difficulty (they've long been regarded as suspect in application to legal texts anyway). That said, it's early days and we would like to extend the research we have done so far. There is a lot of potential for future research applying computational techniques to the readability of law.  A co-authored publication further describing the research introduced in this article will be presented at this year's Law Via the Internet Conference being held at the end of September.

But while we're thinking about it, there are other ways to think about `access' to law.  What if instead of writing the law, it was visualized?  You know -- like in pictures.  Before you storm off in contempt, note this: research is validating that pictures can improve user experience -- for example in the contract space, where what your clients think of your contract can impact on your bottom line.

It's radical enough unleashing computer scientists on legal rules. What might the law look like if we try thinking like designers?   'User experience' of legal rules? That one didn't come up in law school.  We're in some surreally different world at this point. Designers create artefacts for people to use which are optimised for functionality, beauty and other characteristics –- not things that are meant to tell people what to do. 'User experience' is their kind of thinking.

As readers of Vox Pop will know, the idea of legal design is starting to get traction. Helena Haapio and Stefania Passera's great article on legal design covers some of the field. An article they jointly published last year points out some of the benefits of visualization. Earlier this year, we worked on a joint paper exploring the feasibility of automating legal visualization. We were able to demonstrate the automation of visualization of clauses, such as a contract term clause, a liquidated damages clause or a payment clause. Visit our proof of concept site, where you can play with visualizing different options.

OK. So perhaps some of the above reads like we're on the up-slope of the hype curve. But that of course is the fun. For those of us who've spent many years in the law, looking at the law from a different professional paradigm can help us see things that didn't stand out before. It certainly enjoyable and brings a breath of fresh air to the law.

Michael CurtottiMichael Curtotti is undertaking a PhD in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University.  His co-authored publications on legal informatics include: A Right to Access Implies a Right to Know:  An Open Online Platform for Readability ResearchEnhancing the Visualization of Law and A corpus of Australian contract language: description, profiling and analysis.  He holds a Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of New South Wales, and a Masters of International Law from the Australian National University.  He works part-time as a legal adviser to the ANU Students Association and the ANU Post-graduate & research students Association, providing free legal services to ANU students.


Other related posts on VoxPopuLII on this topic include Law in the Last-Mile: The Potential of Mobile Integration into Legal Services by Sean Martin McDonald, Incomprehension Compounded by Mistranslation – The Imperatives of Access to Legal Information in South Africa by Eve Gray and Accessible Law by Nick Holmes

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed.

By Margaret Hagan, Alex Gavis and Kursat Ozenc
Margaret Hagan, Kursat Ozenc, and Alex Gavis kick off the class Get Smart on legal communication design. (c) Fred Leichter, 2014.

(c) Fred Leichter, 2014.

1. Bringing communication design to law

In May 2014, we ran a Legal Communication Design class at Stanford’s Institute of Design, or the Though legal communications have a reputation as dense, opaque & heavy, we wanted to open up some space for experimenting with what legal communication could be. The proposes that professionals solve problems through collaborative, interdisciplinary experimentation, all while focused on building solutions that are user-friendly & engaging for specific end-users.

We decided to take this approach and apply it to legal communications. Our goals were twofold:

  1. to train students in how to communicate complex information to lay audiences, and
  2. to scope new patterns and models for more resonant communication design of information that conveys legal terms & conditions, rights and warnings.

We formed a three-person teaching team: Margaret Hagan, a legal designer based at Stanford’s; Alex Gavis, in-house counsel at Fidelity Investments with expertise in consumer and financial regulations and product design; and Kursat Ozenc, an interaction designer trained at Carnegie Mellon’s Design School and working at Autodesk.

Get Smart - poster-for-the-class

We developed a two-day intensive “Pop Up” class at the entitled, “Get Smart: Marking Complicated Information Simple.” We intended for the class to be mostly populated by law students, but most of our applicants came from students studying in other fields: engineering, management science, business, political science, and anthropology. The class was oversubscribed, and ultimately limited to about 45 students.



2. Our approach to complex communication design

The pop-up class was an experiment to see what ideas would emerge from interdisciplinary groups of students using design to make complex legal information more comprehensible. As we prepared for the class, we began to form a Framework of Complex Communication Design. Our central insight is that complex information design can be categorized into two basic branches: (1) that for analysis and understanding, and (2) that for decision-making and action.

Types of Complex Communication Design

Communication Design for Insight and Understanding

The first categorization can be described as making complex sets of information more understandable. There is considerable buzz around this type of complex communication design right now, especially around “data visualizations”. This type of design draws on data sets underlying complex sets of facts, and it attempts to present the data sets in a lively and engaging matter.

In this branch of complex communication design, the goal is to educate. It is to shape data that is otherwise overwhelming into information that is digestible and attractive, and it helps the user understand the data and information. Ideally, the design will allow its author to convey large data sets for better comprehension by individuals -- helping them to see patterns, trends, and meaning in an otherwise opaque set of information. The design might also be interactive and flexible enough to allow its end-user to find new insights and inspirations about the data topic, which the design's author was not aware of.

This type of communication design is commonly employed by scientists, journalists, and others who want to help people make connections between large data sets and the broader world.

Communication Design for Decision-Making

The second stream of communication design is about making complex rules and systems both comprehensible and actionable. It applies to legal communications of notices, rights and warnings. Done well, this type of complex design has the author presenting the rules of a system in their complexity, but empowers the end-user to navigate this complexity -- giving them an understanding of the rules and the ability to apply them to the user's specific situation and decisions.

The goal here is not so much about analysis, like in the first branch, but rather in as helping people make better decisions for themselves. It is about helping people understand the situation that they are in, what rules apply to them, what the consequences of these rules will be, and what kind of behavior to take in response to these rules.

Ideal Legal Communication Design Flow

This type of communication design is a legal design challenge. It is focuses on helping people understand the rules of the world and applying the rules to their own life. It is not education for education’s sake. It is practical, but also quite challenging.

In practice, though legal communication design should apply directly to people's lives, it does not. The standard for this branch of design is currently low, if we look at the way terms and conditions are presented in consumer contracts, or the legal fine print at the bottom of television advertisements, or the privacy policies on websites. Most often the communications as presented are dense, jargon-laden, and pedantic. They do not provide the user with greater comprehension of the rules, nor do they empower better decision-making.

Our Focus

Accordingly, our goal for the class was to focus on this second category of communication design. We intended to apply user-centered, experimental design process to explore what types of communication could lead to more user engagement, comprehension, and better decision-making.

3. The Class

The class was held over two days: the first day was an evening boot-camp in visual and communication design, followed by a second day “design sprint” to create and test complex legal communication designs in response to specific use-cases we created.

We created the boot-camp to be a staged training. We first taught the basics of good information design. Then, we scaled this knowledge to review complex information design techniques. After this two-staged boot-camp, the next day was an eight-hour session, during which students were challenged to apply what they learned in the first day to legal use-cases.

The Design Bootcamp

Our challenge in the bootcamp was to to cover the basics of quality communication design to a student audience relatively un-versed in design, within a very restricted time. We decided to do a mixture of learning-by-doing and learning-by-exposure. We also created and distributed “cheat-sheets” covering the basic principles of communication design, blended with tips, templates, and suggestions.

We introduced the fundamental Gestalt principles of visual design (i.e., hierarchy, proximity, asymmetry), and then we showed examples of effective and ineffective design.

Kursat Ozenc explains visual design principles through examples.

Kursat Ozenc explains visual design principles through examples. (c) Fred Leichter 2014.

Prior to the class, we had asked students to post examples of complex communication design to our class website. We drew on these student-sourced images for in-class discussion, and our teaching team also scouted images that could demonstrate the fundamental principles. The examples of visual design ranged from those intended to educate, to those meant to delight or intrigue. We mixed in very practical graphics with those with innovative visual cues and illustrations.

Immersing students in many forms of communication design helped to demonstrate design principles in a way that verbal descriptions could not. The examples also provided good inspiration material for the teams to use, when trying to decide how to convey a message, or to synthesize data points into meaningful relationships. Our teaching strategy was to provide the students with a broad portfolio of types of design, so they could see for themselves why certain designs work or do not, and that they could borrow from the designs that engaged them as a user.

We next took the class through a series of short, 20-minute design exercises, to help them build their design muscles for use the next day. First, we asked students to design a flyer invitation to their next birthday – keeping them focused on how to make a convincing communication within space constraints. This was to practice their understanding of basic principles of good composition, messaging, color choice, and imagery.

Next, we ran a more legal design exercise, in which the students had to represent the complex text instructions for using a transit card in a usable way. The goal was to make these terms and conditions into a user-friendly, contextual communication that a user could actually use during their commute to avoid fines.

A quick design to convey a Transit Card's rules to a commuter.

A quick design to convey a Transit Card's rules to a commuter.

With each of these exercises, students worked by themselves for a short period, and then presented their work to the group. The design reviews provided some critical feedback, as well as encouragement for good design work. These short exercises were warm-ups and team building for the next day’s design sprint.

The Legal Communication Problem and Use Cases

On the second day, the class shifted focus from good communication design practices to the challenges of legal design. Alex began the day with a discussion of why good legal communications design matters. While the law does not require that contracting parties read an agreement, there must be a meeting of the minds. Reasonable processes for obtaining consumer acknowledgement or consent in online agreements are upheld by courts. It takes a lot of bad facts to unwind a contract as unenforceable.

Legal Communication Design - Alex Gavis

Alex Gavis presents the challenges lawyers face when trying to design legal communications to customers. (c) Fred Leichter 2014.

Some laws are proscriptive to protect the public (e.g., the securities laws on full and fair disclosure) others are principles based (e.g., consumer protection laws prohibiting unfair and deceptive acts), and some are structured to validate legitimacy of actions (e.g., the federal and state electronic signature laws).

All this leads to legal dissonance on how consumers may be treated when in transacting online for goods or obtaining services. They generally make purchase decisions not based on any awareness of terms or conditions or the “fine print.” They are confronted with contracts, terms-of-use, consents, and disclosures all over the place, but they typically do not take action on them (click, acknowledge, accept) until after making a decision -- usually only upon checkout.

The requirements to make these legitimate in the law can vary by law, regulation, and jurisdiction. Many transactions or interactions wind up in the category of “agree now, worry later” for consumers.

Communications in which the message is well-crafted and the visual is well-rendered can help understanding and mitigate later problems. If there is understanding at the beginning of the consumer-commercial relationship, then there may be less at risk for both parties. Good design and communications may lead to better outcomes as both parties understand what is being asked and required of them and later disputes may be mitigated or dampened.

We assembled four use cases to demonstrate the importance of good communications design.

Use Case 1: “And Where Do I Sign?”

And Where Do I Sign?The first use case mentions a fictitious consumer, Susan, who spends a lot of time researching and connecting with friends about where to put her money. She makes a decision and is eager to open an account quickly at the financial institution she has chosen.

This is where the road gets bumpy for her as she must suddenly navigate disclosures, notices, consents, agreements and the providing of personal information. This mishmash of activity occurs before she can successfully open an account, and she thinks that somewhere in all that language is something that she may wish she had known and understood.

Students were assigned to consider these facts and determine how to design a different experience that would engage and inform (and perhaps delight) Susan.

Use Case #2: “I am on the Run, Just Tell Me What to Do.”

I'm on the Run Just Tell Me What To DoThe second use case involved a similar fact scenario to the first one, but asked students to imagine that Susan is a busy executive who travels all over the U.S. She has a small window of time in which to open an account one day and must do so at the airport between flights.

The students’ assignment was to design a successful (and delightful) experience for Susan that can work with her mobility.





Use Case #3: “When Can I Play?"

When Can I Play?The third use case involved a father–son interaction. Carlos wants to help his young son download an online game. The gaming company has agreements, notices, and terms and conditions that it needs Carlos to agree to before it will allow for the downloading of the game. Some of the conditions are required by law; some are required by the company to protect its intellectual property; and some may be required by the credit card company that is handling the billing.

The students’ assignment was to consider how Carlos, in the process of obtaining information and accepting a free trial, can understand the various rights and responsibilities that he (and his son) will be taking on, including license and intellectual property rights, the conditions and responsibilities for payments and the policies and regulations regarding his and his son’s privacy preferences. They were to design an experience that would allow Carlos to understand better what is involved, and from the standpoint of Carlos completing it online through a mobile device with limited print and storage capabilities.

Use Case #4: “You Want Me to Say What?”

Communication Design use case 4 - you want me to say what?The final use case involved an example of advertising for financial services. Advertising provides a source of information to prospective customers about the products and services offered by financial services firms. Advertisers desire to keep the messaging in advertisements streamlined and straightforward, while at the same time making compelling messaging that will be understood by consumers and complying with regulatory standards.

The students were tasked with conjuring advertising across print, web, mobile and television that can meet the twin goals of being innovative in messaging while adhering to specific regulatory disclosure requirements. The students were provided with examples of the disclosure requirements and were asked to find ways to innovate with the display and positioning of required disclosures. They were challenged to discover new concepts in advertising design to meet the goals of understandability, simplicity and investor understanding.

The Design Sprint

We formed the students into teams, mixing their disciplines to get a balance of law students, engineers, social scientists, and humanities students in each group. Then each group was able to choose which use case they wanted to work on.

With their use case chosen, the teams first worked to flesh out a persona in each case, around which to design and build their models. Next, the teams evaluated the type of information that the use-case required to be presented to the persona-audience. After that, they brainstormed design ideas, about what kinds of communications may engage their persona.

Once they developed ideas, the teams discussed their practicality and, in some cases, the groups voted on which one (or ones) to pursue. With this focus, they then spent an hour designing a prototype of the communication design to test in the field. Some created visuals by hand, others used digital tools to mock-up storyboards, app interfaces, or graphics.

After lunch, they went out onto the Stanford campus to find user testers. They asked members of the public for feedback on their ideas and design. Finally, in the last hour of the workshop, each team presented their final designs and user feedback to the class.

4. Models that Emerged

We found that the students generated ideas that suggest several different models for how to provide notice in a legal situation.

Model 1: Embedded Notice

This model involves embedding information concerning warnings into the context of the content that the user desires to consume.

For a television advertisement, for example, one team proposed that, instead of presenting images and voice together and then the legal disclosures (in “fine print” text) in a separate overlay, the message(s) from the legal disclosures could be woven into the images and the voiceover. This would allow a customer to comprehend the “fine print” information within the visual and aural content experience, without having to strain to read the disclosure text on screen.

For Use Case #3, one team suggested that the privacy disclosures and other legal warnings be incorporated into the game environment. The same avatars, background, points system and interfaces would exist for the game and for the disclosures. They suggested an approach where a game user goes through the disclosures and wins points, advancing in the game universe.

(c) Margaret Hagan 2014

(c) Margaret Hagan 2014

This allows the user to become educated on privacy and legal issues in the context of what he or she wants to do – play the game. It cleverly embeds the disclosures and warnings directly into the game flow.

The overall model has the legal and financial notice woven together with the juicy and non-legal content.

1a: Interactive Games

One popular type of an embedded notice was game-based. Several teams built models around games, putting the information into a highly interactive and rewarding type of situation.

As discussed with the class, a drawback with this model is that it is very intensive, requiring an investment of time from the user as well as from the notice giver. A benefit is that it has a narrative that can be quite engaging. It has stages and incentives to keep exploring the information being communicated.

This model might work very well when the user is already within a digital environment, like a game on a computer or on an app. The notice-game can be woven seamlessly into the experience that the user is trying to enjoy. It should be considered for “entertainment experiences,” when the user is already in an entertainment mode — for example, when he or she is about to play a game, watch a movie, read a magazine, or start a video game.

Model 2: Roadmap with Zoom

This model involves a large map of the notice and message, which the user can then zoom in and out of. The user chooses where to focus, and can see both the complexity all at once from a distance, or zoomed into a particular part of it.

This type of design allows the user to engage with the material selectively and in a staged way. The omniscient user sets the terms.

(c) Margaret Hagan 2014

(c) Margaret Hagan 2014

Two different teams presented designs along this model, but with slight variations. In one model, the designer of the communication sets a sequential path through the communication, and the user goes step by step through it.

The second model is non-sequential and non-linear. The user browses through the communication, zooming in and out of particular topics and choices. The design tracks the progress they have made, but it does not strictly guide the user along a certain path.

Model 3: Divide & Conquer

The divide and conquer model is a modular series of communications that add up to a complete, complex delivery of notice. It involves a modular, staged set of discrete “communication tasks,” that the user proceeds through at their own pace.

The user receives a short communication and then must respond in some way to show that she has registered the information. Each communication is a task, with a two-way channel, of the designer presenting information to the user and the user having to respond in some way. The user goes through the communication tasks one by one, completing the stages and eventually getting the entire communication.

This model takes inspiration from a checklist, but it gives a focused experience for each task. It also lets the user do things in a short way, knowing how much time each of these modules should take and then conquering what they want depending on their situation at the time.

3a: The efficient, clean click-through

One example of this model was more for a professional user, who values efficiency and practicality. The design’s goal was to provide an interactive app that would efficiently let the professional target and flag important information. It was an even more streamlined version of Divide & Conquer, for people who don't want to dive into any details.

This model allowed for having the details sent later through email or reminders, for when the user may want to refer to the full text. It generally prioritized quick understanding over deep comprehension, but tried to give enough understanding to alert a user to anything she may be concerned about or may want to explore at a later time.

Model 4: Personalized, Conversational, Growing Agreement

In this design, the user responds to prompts, asking him for his information and preferences. As he responds to each prompt, a customized communication is generated for him. It is presented alongside his responses, so he can see how the contract, notice, or other type of legal communication will change depending on his answers.

(c) Margaret Hagan 2014

(c) Margaret Hagan 2014

The legal notice is not a given, but rather is progressively generated by the user. The motive behind this model is to give the user a sense of authorship and control. The user is able to see how his choices affect the length and complexity of provisions of the agreement that he must accept at the end of the process. There is a dynamic nature to this process as paragraphs build or collapse depending upon actions. It is also to show flexibility from the designer and legal communicator — to let them show they are willing to defer to the preferences of the user. The experience becomes one that is constructive.

Model 5: Proximate, Contextual Notification

In the proximate notice design, the legal communication is divided up into stages and then presented to the user as it relates to the topic at hand.

It was designed with the idea of presenting terms and conditions selectively, as it relates to the user’s specific data disclosures. As the user enters data into a field, the design immediately prompts her with what the rules, restrictions and notices are for that piece of information. The user sees the conditions as applied to each data point individually.

The design intends to make the large, complex set of terms and conditions more understandable by contextualizing them, and by presenting them bit by bit. The model ideally helps the user understand concretely how each piece of information she discloses relates to the terms and conditions.

Model 6: Protector Relationship

In the protector model, the design attempts to put the user in the mindset of protecting another person, or a future version of themselves. It may do this through the use of an avatar, who will be affected by the content of the communication. Or it could be through a design that shows the user a future version of herself, and encouraging her to think of the communication as applied to this future version.

The goal is to encourage more engagement with a legal communication by putting the user in the position of protecting someone else. Rather than passing over legal information, the user will invest attention into it because something is at stake for someone else. It taps into a sense of duty to protect, especially for someone who seems vulnerable.

This model of design attempts to facilitate more thoughtfulness about the legal communication — helping the user think about how it will play out over a long term. It may also encourage users to think of cause and effect.

5. Ways Forward

The ideas that emerged were bounded by the limited one-day timing for the class. With more time, we are confident that additional ideas would be born. It was helpful to have a mixture of law, business, engineering, and students in other disciplines participating in the class, as they brought varied ideas to the table.

Now we are planning a follow-up workshop with a more specific group of participants: lawyers who work on legal communication challenges like those in our use cases, and designers who have an interest in engaging, resonant communications. Our plan is to take the models and prototypes that emerged out of the class, and to work with the lawyers and designers to validate or upend these initial drafts. We hope to hone a more definite set of good legal communication design patterns, which can be useful to those making complex information design.

After this next-stage workshop, we are considering a controlled test of several of the most promising concepts to determine whether they have the desired effect of making contracting more understandable and simpler. We could imagine these ideas being tested in any number of different contexts where a business would like its users to agree to specific conditions or agreements. This also could be the subject of psychology research and studies on the propensity for individuals to understand information that is designed for their consumption.

The class confirmed for us that there are design approaches -- some of which our class developed and others yet to be found -- that can directly address complexity in legal interactions and that may well resonate.


About the Authors

Alex Gavis headshot 150Alex Gavis is a member of the Corporate Legal Department of FMR LLC, the parent company of Fidelity Investments, one of the largest brokerage and mutual fund companies in the United States and the leading provider of workplace retirement savings plans. He manages a team of attorneys and professionals and is responsible for providing legal services to the firm's retail brokerage, college savings, stock plan and workplace retirement businesses. He also oversees and manages legal services for Fidelity's businesses involved in electronic and mobile commerce, start-up innovation, and social media. Mr. Gavis also oversees legal advice on all of Fidelity’s national advertising and marketing initiatives. He is frequent speaker and lecturer on securities law and e-commerce issues.

Margaret Hagan headshot 150 x 150Margaret Hagan is a fellow at Stanford Law’s Center on the Legal Profession and a lecturer at Stanford Institute of Design (the She was a fellow at the from 2013-2014, where she launched the Program for Legal Tech & Design, experimenting in how design can make legal services more usable, useful and engaging. She taught a series of project-based classes, with interdisciplinary student groups tackling legal challenges through user-focused research and design of new legal products and services. She also leads workshops to train legal professionals in the design process, to produce client-focused innovation. Her blog on legal design is Open Law Lab, and her portfolio of design projects and illustrations are available here.

Kursat Ozenc headshot squareKursat Ozenc is a Senior User Experience Designer at Autodesk in San Francisco, building the next generation design tools for infrastructure professionals. He conducts user research, turns research insights into concept designs, & transforms designs into launch-ready systems, interactions, and interfaces. He completed his Ph.D. studies (2011) in design at Carnegie Mellon University. He holds an M.F.A. degree (2004) in Visual Communication Design from Sabanci University in Istanbul, and a bachelors degree (2002) in Industrial Product design from Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkiye.
Other posts on visualization and law on this blog include Visual Law: What Lawyers Need to Learn from Information Designers by Helena Haapio and  Stefania Passera.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed.


1. The Death and Life of Great Legal Data Standards to the many efforts of the open government movement in the past decade, the benefits of machine-readable legal data — legal data which can be processed and easily interpreted by computers — are now widely understood. In the world of government statutes and reports, machine-readability would significantly enhance public transparency, help to increase efficiencies in providing services to the public, and make it possible for innovators to develop third-party services that enhance civic life.

In the universe of private legal data — that of contracts, briefs, and memos — machine-readability would open up vast potential efficiencies within the law firm context, allow the development of novel approaches to processing the law, and would help to drive down the costs of providing legal services.

However, while the benefits are understood, by and large the vision of rendering the vast majority of legal documents into a machine-readable standard has not been realized. While projects do exist to acquire and release statutory language in a machine-readable format (and the government has backed similar initiatives), the vast body of contractual language and other private legal documents remains trapped in a closed universe of hard copies, PDFs, unstructured plaintext and Microsoft Word files.

Though this is a relatively technical point, it has broad policy implications for society at large. Perhaps the biggest upshot is that machine-readability promises to vastly improve access to the legal system, not only for those seeking legal services, but also for those seeking to provide legal services, as well.

It is not for lack of a standard specification that the status quo exists. Indeed, projects like LegalXML have developed specifications that describe a machine-readable markup for a vast range of different types of legal documents. As of writing, the project includes technical committees working on legislative documents, contracts, court filings, citations, and more.

However, by and large these efforts to develop machine-readable specifications for legal data have only solved part of the problem. Creating the standard is one thing, but actually driving adoption of a legal data standard is another (often more difficult) matter. There are a number of reasons why existing standards have failed to gain traction among the creators of legal data.

For one, the oft-cited aversion of lawyers to technology remains a relevant factor. Particularly in the case of the standardization of legal data, where the projected benefits exist in the future and the magnitude of benefit speculative at the present moment, persuading lawyers and legislatures to adopt a new standard remains a challenge, at best.VOX.confidential.stamp-pdf-file

Secondly, the financial incentives of some actors may actually be opposed towards rendering the universe of legal documents into a machine-readable standard. A universe of largely machine-readable legal documents would also be one in which it may be possible for third-parties to develop systems that automate and significantly streamline legal services. In the context of the ever-present billable hour, parties may resist the introduction of technological shifts that enable these efficiencies to emerge.

Third, the costs of converting existing legal data into a machine-readable standard may also pose a significant barrier to adoption. Marking up unstructured legal text can be highly costly depending on the intended machine usage of the document and the type of document in question. Persuading a legislature, firm, or other organization with a large existing repository of legal documents to take on large one-time costs to render the documents into a common standard also discourages adoption.

These three reinforcing forces erect a significant cultural and economic barrier against the integration of machine-readable standards into the production of legal text. To the extent that one believes in the benefits from standardization for the legal industry and society at large, the issue is — in fact — not how to define a standard, but how to establish one.

2. Rough Consensus, Running Standards

So, how might one go about promulgating a standard? Particularly in a world in which lawyers, the very actors that produce the bulk of legal data, are resistant to change, mere attempts to mobilize the legal community to action are destined to fail in bringing about the fundamental shift necessary to render most if not all legal documents in a common machine-readable format.

In such a context, implementing a standard in a way that removes humans from the loop entirely may, in fact, be more effective. To do so, one might design code that was capable of automatically rendering legal text into a machine-readable format. This code could then be implemented by applications of all kinds, which would output legal documents in a standard format by default. This would include the word processors used by lawyers, but also integration with platforms like LegalZoom or RocketLawyer that routinely generate large quantities of legal data. Such a solution would eliminate the need for lawyer involvement from the process of implementing a standard entirely: any text created would be automatically parsed and outputted in a machine readable format. Scripts might also be written to identify legal documents online and process them into a common format. As the body of documents rendered in a given format grew, it would be possible for others to write software leveraging the increased penetration of the standard.

There are — obviously — technical limitations in realizing this vision of a generalized legal data parser. For one, designing a truly comprehensive parser is a massively difficult computer science challenge. Legal documents come in a vast diversity of flavors, and no common textual conventions allow for the perfect accurate parsing of the semantic content of any given legal text. Quite simply, any parser will be an imperfect (perhaps highly imperfect) approximation of full machine-readability.

Despite the lack of a perfect solution, an open question exists as to whether or not an extremely rough parsing system, implemented at sufficient scale, would be enough to kickstart the creation of a true common standard for legal text. A popular solution, however imperfect, would encourage others to implement nuances to the code. It would also encourage the design of applications for documents rendered in the standard. Beginning from the roughest of parsers, a functional standard might become the platform for a much bigger change in the nature of legal documents. The key is to achieve the “minimal viable standard” that will begin the snowball rolling down the hill: the point at which the parser is rendering sufficient legal documents in a common format that additional value can be created by improving the parser and applying it to an ever broader scope of legal data.

But, what is the critical mass of documents one might need? How effective would the parser need to be in order to achieve the initial wave of adoption? Discovering this, and learning whether or not such a strategy would be effective, is at the heart of the Restatement project.

3. Introducing Project Restatement

Supported by a grant from the Knight Foundation Prototype Fund, Restatement is a simple, rough-and-ready system which automatically parses legal text into a basic machine-readable JSON format. It has also been released under the permissive terms of the MIT License, to encourage active experimentation and implementation.

The concept is to develop an easily-extensible system which parses through legal text and looks for some common features to render into a standard format. Our general design principle in developing the parser was to begin with only the most simple features common to nearly all legal documents. This includes the parsing of headers, section information, and “blanks” for inputs in legal documents like contracts. As a demonstration of the potential application of Restatement, we’re also designing a viewer that takes documents rendered in the Restatement format and displays them in a simple, beautiful, web-readable version.

Underneath the hood, Restatement is all built upon web technology. This was a deliberate choice, as Restatement aims to provide a usable alternative to document formats like PDF and Microsoft Word. We want to make it easy for developers to write software that displays and modifies legal documents in the browser.

In particular, Restatement is built entirely in JavaScript. The past few years have been exciting for the JavaScript community. We've seen an incredible flourishing of not only new projects built on JavaScript, but also new tools for building cool new things with JavaScript. It seemed clear to us that it's the platform to build on right now, so we wrote the Restatement parser and viewer in JavaScript, and made the Restatement format itself a type of JSON (JavaScript Object Notation) document.

For those who are more technically inclined, we also knew that Restatement needed a parser formalism, that is, a precise way to define how plain text can get transformed into Restatement format. We became interested in recent advance in parsing technology, called PEG (Parsing Expression Grammar).

PEG parsers are different from other types of parsers; they're unambiguous. That means that plain text passing through a PEG parser has only one possible valid parsed output. We became excited about using the deterministic property of PEG to mix parsing rules and code, and that's when we found peg.js.

With peg.js, we can generate a grammar that executes JavaScript code as it parses your document. This hybrid approach is super powerful. It allows us to have all of the advantages of using a parser formalism (like speed and unambiguity) while also allowing us to run custom JavaScript code on each bit of your document as it parses. That way we can use an external library, like the Sunlight Foundation's fantastic citation, from inside the parser.

Our next step is to prototype an "interactive parser," a tool for attorneys to define the structure of their documents and see how they parse. Behind the scenes, this interactive parser will generate peg.js programs and run them against plaintext without the user even being aware of how the underlying parser is written. We hope that this approach will provide users with the right balance of power and usability.

4. Moving Forwards

Restatement is going fully operational in June 2014. After launch, the two remaining challenges are to (a) continuing expanding the range of legal document features the parser will be able to successfully process, and (b) begin widely processing legal documents into the Restatement format.

For the first, we’re encouraging a community of legal technologists to play around with Restatement, break it as much as possible, and give us feedback. Running Restatement against a host of different legal documents and seeing where it fails will expose the areas that are necessary to bolster the parser to expand its potential applicability as far as possible.

For the second, Restatement will be rendering popular legal documents in the format, and partnering with platforms to integrate Restatement into the legal content they produce. We’re excited to say on launch Restatement will be releasing the standard form documents used by the startup accelerator Y Combinator, and Series Seed, an open source project around seed financing created by Fenwick & West.

It is worth adding that the Restatement team is always looking for collaborators. If what’s been described here interests you, please drop us a line! I’m available at, and on Twitter @RobotandHwang.


JasonBoehmigJason Boehmig is a corporate attorney at Fenwick & West LLP, a law firm specializing in technology and life science matters. His practice focuses on startups and venture capital, with a particular emphasis on early stage issues. He is an active maintainer of the Series Seed Documents, an open source set of equity financing documents. Prior to attending law school, Jason worked for Lehman Brothers, Inc. as an analyst and then as an associate in their Fixed Income Division.

tim-hwangTim Hwang currently serves as the managing human partner at the offices of Robot, Robot & Hwang LLP. He is curator and chair for the Stanford Center on Legal Informatics FutureLaw 2014 Conference, and organized the New and Emerging Legal Infrastructures Conference (NELIC) at Berkeley Law in 2010. He is also the founder of the Awesome Foundation for the Arts and Sciences, a distributed, worldwide philanthropic organization founded to provide lightweight grants to projects that forward the interest of awesomeness in the universe. Previously, he has worked at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, Creative Commons, Mozilla Foundation, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. For his work, he has appeared in the New York Times, Forbes, Wired Magazine, the Washington Post, the Atlantic Monthly, Fast Company, and the Wall Street Journal, among others. He enjoys ice cream.

Paul_SawayaPaul Sawaya is a software developer currently working on Restatement, an open source toolkit to parse, manipulate, and publish legal documents on the web. He previously worked on identity at Mozilla, and studied computer science at Hampshire College.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed.

Artisanal Algorithms

Down here in Durham, NC, we have artisanal everything: bread, cheese, pizza, peanut butter, and of course coffee, coffee, and more coffee. It's great—fantastic food and coffee, that is, and there is no doubt some psychological kick from knowing that it's been made carefully by skilled craftspeople for my enjoyment. The old ways are better, at least until they're co-opted by major multinational corporations.

Artisanal Cheese. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Aside from making you either hungry or jealous, or perhaps both, why am I talking about fancy foodstuffs on a blog about legal information? It's because I'd like to argue that algorithms are not computerized, unknowable, mysterious things—they are produced by people, often painstakingly, with a great deal of care. Food metaphors abound, helpfully I think. Algorithms are the “special sauce” of many online research services. They are sets of instructions to be followed and completed, leading to a final product, just like a recipe. Above all, they are the stuff of life for the research systems of the near future.

Human Mediation Never Went Away

When we talk about algorithms in the research community, we are generally talking about search or information retrieval (IR) algorithms. A recent and fascinating VoxPopuLII post by Qiang Lu and Jack Conrad, “Next Generation Legal Search – It's Already Here,” discusses how these algorithms have become more complicated by considering factors beyond document-based, topical relevance. But I'd like to step back for a moment and head into the past for a bit to talk about the beginnings of search, and the framework that we have viewed it within for the past half-century.

Many early information-retrieval systems worked like this: a researcher would come to you, the information professional, with an information need, that vague and negotiable idea which you would try to reduce to a single question or set of questions. With your understanding of Boolean search techniques and your knowledge of how the document corpus you were searching was indexed, you would then craft a search for the computer to run. Several hours later, when the search was finished, you would be presented with a list of results, sometimes ranked in order of relevance and limited in size because of a lack of computing power. Presumably you would then share these results with the researcher, or perhaps just turn over the relevant documents and send him on his way. In the academic literature, this was called “delegated search,” and it formed the background for the most influential information retrieval studies and research projects for many years—the Cranfield Experiments. See also “On the History of Evaluation in IR” by Stephen Robertson (2008).

In this system, literally everything—the document corpus, the index, the query, and the results—were mediated. There was a medium, a middle-man. The dream was to some day dis-intermediate, which does not mean to exhume the body of the dead news industry. (I feel entitled to this terrible joke as a former journalist... please forgive me.) When the World Wide Web and its ever-expanding document corpus came on the scene, many thought that search engines—huge algorithms, basically—would remove any barrier between the searcher and the information she sought. This is “end-user” search, and as algorithms improved, so too would the system, without requiring the searcher to possess any special skills. The searcher would plug a query, any query, into the search box, and the algorithm would present a ranked list of results, high on both recall and precision. Now, the lack of human attention, evidenced by the fact that few people ever look below result 3 on the list, became the limiting factor, instead of the lack of computing power.

A search for delegated search

A search for delegated search

The only problem with this is that search engines did not remove the middle-man—they became the middle-man. Why? Because everything, whether we like it or not, is editorial, especially in reference or information retrieval. Everything, every decision, every step in the algorithm, everything everywhere, involves choice. Search engines, then, are never neutral. They embody the priorities of the people who created them and, as search logs are analyzed and incorporated, of the people who use them. It is in these senses that algorithms are inherently human.

Empowering the Searcher by Failing Consistently

In the context of legal research, then, it makes sense to consider algorithms as secondary sources. Law librarians and legal research instructors can explain the advantages of controlled vocabularies like the Topic and Key Number System®, of annotated statutes, and of citators. In several legal research textbooks, full-text keyword searching is anathema because, I suppose, no one knows what happens directly after you type the words into the box and click search. It seems frightening. We are leaping without looking, trusting our searches to some kind of computer voodoo magic.

This makes sense—search algorithms are often highly guarded secrets, even if what they select for (timeliness, popularity, and dwell time, to name a few) is made known. They are opaque. They apparently do not behave reliably, at least in some cases. But can't the same be said for non-algorithmic information tools, too? Do we really know which types of factors figure in to the highly vaunted editorial judgment of professionals?

To take the examples listed above—yes, we know what the Topics and Key Numbers are, but do we really know them well enough to explain why the work the way they do, what biases are baked-in from over a century of growth and change? Without greater transparency, I can't tell you.

How about annotated statutes: who knows how many of the cases cited on online platforms are holdovers from the soon-to-be print publications of yesteryear? In selecting those cases, surely the editors had to choose to omit some, or perhaps many, because of space constraints. How, then, did the editors determine which cases were most on-point in interpreting a given statutory section, that is, which were most relevant? What algorithms are being used today to rank the list of annotations? Again, without greater transparency, I can't tell you.

And when it comes to citators, why is there so much discrepancy between a case's classification and which later-citing cases are presented as evidence of this classification? There have been several recent studies, like this one and this one, looking into the issue, but more research is certainly needed.

Finally, research in many fields is telling us that human judgments of relevance are highly subjective in the first place. At least one court has said that algorithmic predictive coding is better at finding relevant documents during pretrial e-discovery than humans are.

Where are the relevant documents? Source: CC BY 2.0, flickr user gosheshe

I am not presenting these examples to discredit subjectivity in the creation of information tools. What I am saying is that the dichotomy between editorial and algorithmic, between human and machine, is largely a false one. Both are subjective. But why is this important?

Search algorithms, when they are made transparent to researchers, librarians, and software developers (i.e. they are “open source”), do have at least one distinct advantage over other forms of secondary sources—when they fail, they fail consistently. After the fact or even in close to real-time, it's possible to re-program the algorithm when it is not behaving as expected.

Another advantage to thinking of algorithms as just another secondary source is that, demystified, they can become a less privileged (or, depending on your point of view, less demonized) part of the research process. The assumption that the magic box will do all of the work for you is just as dangerous as the assumption that the magic box will do nothing for you. Teaching about search algorithms allows for an understanding of them, especially if the search algorithms are clear about which editorial judgments have been prioritized.

Beyond Search, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Automated Research Tools

As an employee at Fastcase, Inc. this past summer, I had the opportunity to work on several innovative uses of algorithms in legal research, most notably on the new automated citation-analysis tool Bad Law Bot. Bad Law Bot, at least in its current iteration, works by searching the case law corpus for significant signals—words, phrases, or citations to legal documents—and, based on criteria selected in advance, determines whether a case has been given negative treatment in subsequent cases. The tool is certainly automated, but the algorithm is artisanal—it was massaged and kneaded by caring craftsmen to deliver a premium product. The results it delivered were also tested meticulously to find out where the algorithm had failed. And then the process started over again.

This is just one example of what I think the future of much general legal research will look like—smart algorithms built and tested by people, taking advantage of near unlimited storage space and ever-increasing computing power to process huge datasets extremely fast. Secondary sources, at least the ones organizing, classifying, and grouping primary law, will no longer be static things. Rather, they will change quickly when new documents are available or new uses for those documents are dreamed up. It will take hard work and a realistic set of expectations to do it well.

Computer assisted legal research cannot be about merely returning ranked lists of relevant results, even as today's algorithms get better and better at producing these lists. Search must be only one component of a holistic research experience in which the searcher consults many tools which, used together, are greater than the sum of their parts. Many of those tools will be built by information professionals and software engineers using algorithms, and will be capable of being updated and changed as the corpus and user need changes.

It's time that we stop thinking of algorithms as alien, or other, or too complicated, or scary. Instead, we should think of them as familiar and human, as sets of instructions hand-crafted to help us solve problems with research tools that we have not yet been able to solve, or that we did not know were problems in the first place.

Aaron KirschenfeldAaron Kirschenfeld is currently pursuing a dual J.D. / M.S.I.S. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His main research interests are legal research instruction, the philosophy and aesthetics of legal citation analysis, and privacy law. You can reach him on Twitter @kirschsubjudice.

His views do not represent those of his part-time employer, Fastcase, Inc. Also, he has never hand-crafted an algorithm, let alone a wheel of cheese, but appreciates the work of those who do immensely.


VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed.

The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.
- Henry VI, Pt. 2, Act 4, sc. 2.

This line, delivered by Dick the Butcher (turned revolutionary) in Shakespeare's Henry VI, is often performed tongue-in-cheek by actors to elicit an expected laugh from the audience. The essence of the line, however, is no joke, and relates to destabilizing the rule of law by removing its agents -- those who promote and enforce the law. What no one could predict, including Shakespeare himself, is the horrific precision with which such a deed could be carried out.

The 1994 Genocide in Rwanda showed this horror and more, with upwards of one million killed in the span of three months. The effect on the legal system was particularly devastating, with the targeting of lawyers and the justice sector, resulting in the targeted killing of prosecutors and judges at its outset.

Rwanda's Justice Sector Development
Since 1994, Rwanda has done a remarkable job rebuilding its society, establishing security, curbing corruption, and creating one of the fastest growing economies in sub-Saharan Africa.

Law Library at the Ministry of Justice, Kigali, Rwanda.

Law Library at the Ministry of Justice, Kigali, Rwanda.

One of the biggest areas of development in Rwanda, and in other areas of the world, has been strengthening justice sector institutions and strengthening the rule of law. In transitional states, especially those developing systems of democratic governance, the creation of online, reliable, and accessible legal information systems is a critical component of good governance. Rwanda's efforts and opportunities for development in this area are noted below.

From 2010-2011, I played a very small part of this development when I served as a law clerk and legal advisor to then-Chief Justice Aloysie Cyanzayire of the Supreme Court of Rwanda. Working with a USAID-funded project, I was also able to participate with legal education reform, and the development of an online database of laws, the Rwanda Legal Information Portal (RwandaLIP). In the summer of 2013 I returned to Rwanda, with the support of the American Association of Law Libraries, to visit its law libraries and understand the role of law libraries in legal institutions and overall society. After learning the Rwanda LIP was no longer updated (and now offline entirely), investigating Rwanda's online legal presence became a secondary research goal for the trip. The discovery also highlighted the importance of legal information systems and their role in justice sector reform. Part of this justice sector reform related to changes in Rwanda's legal system. Once a Belgian colony, at independence Rwanda inherited a civil law system, codified much of the Belgian civil code, and today the main body of laws comes from enactments of Parliament. Rwanda's judicial system, rebuilt after the 1994 Genocide, is made up of four levels of courts: District Courts, Provincial Courts, High Courts, and the Supreme Court.
With its civil law roots, courts in Rwanda were largely unconcerned with precedent. As Rwanda became a member of the East African Community in 2007 (and adopted English as an official language), the judiciary started a transition to a hybrid common law system, considering how to assign precedential value to court decisions. With this ongoing transition in Rwanda's legal system, an online legal information system has become a significant need for legal and civil society.

One of four computer labs, called the "digital library" at Kigali Independent University, with more than 400 computer workstations available for student use.

One of four computer labs, called the "digital library" at Kigali Independent University, with more than 400 computer workstations available for student use.

Online Legal Information Systems
In order to establish the rule of law in a democratic system, citizens must have access, at the very minimum, to laws of a government. To make this access meaningful, a searchable database of laws should be created to allow users of legal information to find laws based on their particular information need. For this reason alone it is important for governments in transitional states to make a commitment to developing online legal information systems.

John Palfrey aptly noted: "In most countries, primary legal information is broadly accessible in one format or another, but it is rarely made accessible online in a stable and reliable format." This is basically the case in Rwanda. Every law library, university library, and even the Kigali Public Library have paper copies of the Official Journal -- the official laws of Rwanda. Today, however, the only current place to find laws online is through the Prime Minister's webpage, where PDF copies of the Official Gazette are published. The website (Kinyarwanda for "law") was frequently used by lawyers and members of the justice sector to search Rwanda's laws, and allowed the general public to not only access laws, but run a full text search for keywords. This site, however, was not updated after 2011, and is now completely offline. The result is no online source to search Rwanda's laws.

Law Library at the Parliament of the Republic of Rwanda in Kigali.

Law Library at the Parliament of the Republic of Rwanda in Kigali.

Rwanda is using its growing information infrastructure, however, to create other online quasi-legal information databases. For instance, the Rwanda Development Board created an online portal for businesses to access information on "investment related procedures" in Rwanda. The government is also allowing online registration of businesses, streamlining the processes and making it more accessible. These developments make sense with Rwanda's reforms in the area of economic development, and its recent ranking in the top 30% globally for ease of doing business, and 3rd best in sub-Saharan Africa. While economic reform has driven these changes, justice sector reform has not yet yielded the same results for online legal information systems.

Service counter at the University Library at Kigali Independent University in Rwanda.  Students aren't allowed to browse the library stacks.

Service counter at the University Library at Kigali Independent University in Rwanda. Students aren't allowed to browse the library stacks.

Rwanda's Legal Information Culture Despite the limited online access to laws, there is a high value placed on legal information in Rwanda. Every legal institution has a law library and a dedicated library staff member (although most don't have formal education in librarianship or information management). Moreover, members of the justice sector, from staff members to Permanent Secretaries and Ministers, believe libraries and access to legal information is of critical importance. A common theme in Rwanda's law libraries, however, is the lack of funding. Some libraries have not invested in library materials in years, and have solely relied on donations to add items to their collections. It is not altogether surprising, then, that the Rwanda LIP remained un-funded, and is now completely defunct as an online legal information system. One source close to the Rwanda LIP project indicated that funding has been sought at Parliament, but as of today has yet to be successful.

The failure of the Rwanda LIP is perhaps a victim of how it came to be; that is, through donor-funded development. Creating sustainable online databases requires a government commitment of financial support. Just as before it, the Rwanda LIP was created through a donor-funded initiative, and at its conclusion the LIP's source of funding also ended. For any donor-funded development initiative, sustainability is a key concern, and significant government collaboration is necessary for initiatives to remain after donor-funded projects end. This concept is especially true with legal information systems, and is perhaps the cause for the Rwanda LIP's demise. While created in partnership with the Government of Rwanda, it failed to adequately secure a commitment for continued funding at its outset. Sustainability issues are not unique to Rwanda's experience with online legal information systems. The availability of financial resources is one of the key challenges to creating a sustainable online database of laws. Working with developing countries in Africa, SAFLII found that sustainability issues come from "shortages of resources, skills and technical services." While donor-funded projects have serious limitations, others experiencing the sustainability challenge have suggested databases supported by private enterprise, "offering free content as well as value-added services for sale." One thing for certain is that long-term sustainability remains one of the biggest challenges for online legal information systems.

View of the Kigali Public Library in Kigali, Rwanda.

View of the Kigali Public Library in Kigali, Rwanda.

Print to Digital Transition and Overcoming the Digital Divide In addition to sustainability, transition from print to digital poses its own complications, and has emerged as a major issue in law libraries, from even the most established institutions. This challenge is especially unique in the context of developing and transitional states, where access to the internet can pose a significant challenge. This problem, known as the "digital divide," has been described as something that "disproportionately disenfranchises certain segments of society and runs counter to the notion that inclusiveness and opportunity build strong communities and countries." This is an even larger problem in developing and transitional states, where there is far less wealth and technological infrastructure for internet connectivity, and a greater disparity in access between and among communities.

Of all countries in the process of developing online legal information systems, however, Rwanda is perhaps the best suited to succeed. With high-speed fibre-optic internet cables recently installed throughout the small East African country, Rwanda has one of the best internet penetration rates in the developing world. So, while Rwanda's law libraries (and other libraries) throughout the country have print copies of laws, there may be a legitimate opportunity to give a large number of citizens online access. For example, the Kigali Public Library, the flagship institution of the Rwanda Library Services, houses print copies of the laws of Rwanda but also has an internet cafe giving free access to online resources. Kigali Independent University has an "Internet Library" with more than 500 computers for student use. Rwanda's law libraries are also open and accessible to the public, some of which have computers for use by the public as well. Other libraries, including the law library at the National University of Rwanda, have increasing access to online resources to serve their users.

In Rwanda, a new access to information law (Official Gazette No. 10 of 11.03.2013) makes online legal information even more critical in the developing state, and Rwanda's current efforts can serve as an example for the importance of modernizing online legal information. The access to information law imposes a positive obligation on the Government of Rwanda, and some private companies working under government contracts, to disclose a broad range of information to the public and press. It has been stated that the law "meets standards of best practice in terms of scope and application" for freedom of information laws. Despite the law's conditions to withhold information under Article 4, the significant shift in policy and the law's broad range of information available are very positive signs. This and similar laws across the developing world have created a need for the improvement of existing legal information systems, or the creation of new systems to adequately make available essential legal information. A critical component to the implementation of this law, therefore, is a reliable and sustainable online legal information system.

A view of the volcanoes in the Northern Province of Rwanda.

A view of the volcanoes in the Northern Province of Rwanda.

Lessons Learned from Rwanda's Experience
While and the Rwanda LIP are no longer online, institutions within the justice sector of Rwanda are currently working on solutions. In the meantime, there is no meaningful way to search Rwanda's laws online. It is possible that a stronger financial commitment at the outset of the Rwanda LIP would have solved this. In the future, long-term sustainability should be one of the primary qualifications for creating an online system.

In the meantime, there are other ways of expanding Rwanda's access to online legal information through databases of foreign law and secondary sources. Talking with law librarians in Rwanda, I learned that there is little, if any research instruction being delivered from law libraries. Even in the few libraries with subscription electronic databases, users aren't necessarily being directed to relevant legal resources. Furthermore, law librarians generally collect, catalog and retrieve legal materials for users, rather than directing users to relevant sources. Users of legal information in Rwanda (and elsewhere) would be well served by being exposed to other online sources of legal information. Sites like the LII, WorldLII, and the Directory of Open Access Journals offers access to a wealth of free online primary and secondary materials that could be useful to researchers. Creating research guides and offering research instruction in these areas costs very little, and opens up countless resources that could be valuable to users of legal information in Rwanda, and elsewhere. Those working in justice sector development should investigate the possibility for this, in conjunction with creating online legal information systems of domestic laws.

Directional sign outside the Law Faculty at the Independent Institute of Lay Adventist of Kigali.

Directional sign outside the Law Faculty at the Independent Institute of Lay Adventist of Kigali.

Finally, the majority of those working as librarians in Rwanda's law libraries have no formal instruction in library or information science. Nonetheless, it is remarkable that those with little or no formal training are competent librarians. Formal training or not, qualified librarians generally do not have the opportunity to offer research training to users of legal information. Treating law librarians as professionals would open up many opportunities to increase the capacity of users of legal information, and the online resources available.


IMG_1857Brian Anderson is a Reference Librarian and Assistant Professor at the Taggart Law Library at Ohio Northern University. His research involves the use of law libraries and legal information systems to support the rule of law in developing and transitional states. In September 2013 Brian presented two papers at the 2013 Law Via the Internet conference related to this topic; one related to civil society organizations and the use of the internet to strengthen the rule of law, and another about starting online legal information systems from scratch.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editors-in-Chief are Stephanie Davidson and Christine Kirchberger, to whom queries should be directed.