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US Law Code

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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 legislation.gov.uk 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.

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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.

Raise your hand if you’ve heard (or said) a variation of one of these tired truisms: "Politics is dominated by lobbyists and spending." "Policy making has degenerated into a glorified yelling match." "Our country has never been more polarized." "Today’s online communities foster echo chambers of the like-minded rather than fora for discussion."

Is your hand raised? Because ours certainly are.

The only thing anyone can seem to agree on today is that the current U.S. political system is broken. We’re mired in a confluence of corporate spending, ugly discourse, and voter voicelessness.

LexPop provides an open public platform for tackling these problems.

Meet LexPop

LexPop allows participants to collaborate in the creation of legislative bills -- bills that are later introduced by actual legislators. At its most basic, LexPop is a Wikipedia for creating public policy. (There’s a lot more to it than that, as we’ll explain below.) In our first project, Massachusetts Representative Tom Sannicandro (D-Ashland) -- one of those actual legislators we’re talking about -- has agreed to introduce a net neutrality bill created on LexPop.

LexPop has two primary goals. Our first goal is to give the public a voice. We hope to provide a space for ordinary people (i.e., people who can’t afford to hire lobbyists) to contribute substantively to public policy -- to give their best ideas a fair hearing.

As you know, lobbyists write the bulk of the legislation coming out of our various legislatures. LexPop provides a voxlobbylane.jpgcounterpoint to the current model -- a way for the public to provide legislators with voter-created model legislation. A legitimate, 21st-century democracy will invite the public into meaningful collaboration, and LexPop is part of the march in that direction.

Our second goal is to determine the best way to achieve the first. That is, a compelling movement is attempting to take governance into the 21st century, and organizations like PopVox and OpenCongress are doing great work. Several organizations and initiatives, including a government-sponsored effort in Brazil, are trying to make it possible for citizens to help write legislation. But at this point, nobody knows the best way to make the co-creation of laws a reality. Our work will contribute to figuring out what’s possible, what works, and what doesn’t.

How LexPop works

There are two ways to use LexPop. Our primary focus is on Policy Drives -- where legislators pledge to introduce bills written on the site. Policy Drives are somewhat analogous to what goes on at Wikipedia, but LexPop provides more structure through the use of three specific phases:

  • Phase 1: Initial discussion, debate, argument, and research;
  • Phase 2: Outlining the bill in plain English (for those who aren’t regular readers of Vox PopuLII); and
  • Phase 3: Transforming the ‘plain English’ outline into legislative text.

voxnet-neutrality.jpgWe’re currently in the discussion phase of our first Policy Drive, devoted to the net neutrality bill Rep. Sannicandro has agreed to introduce.

A second option on LexPop is working on a “WikiBill.” WikiBills are written via the familiar, wide-open wiki model, and they offer a spot for the public to create model legislation on their own, without the three-phase structure of Policy Drives, and without a legislator-sponsor. WikiBill creators collaborate through a free-for-all process, very similar to Wikipedia -- start from scratch and cobble the bill together. There’s no end to the WikiBill process, so participants can create a bill, submit it to their representatives, modify it, and submit it again.

Yeah, sounds great. But can this really work?

It’s usually at this point in the conversation that questions start coming up. LexPop, and similar projects, are largely operating in uncharted waters, and so there’s good reason to think the project sounds ambitious, perhaps even crazy. Below are a few of the questions we’re asked most often, along with our preliminary answers.

Will anyone contribute to this sort of effort?
We think so. (Obviously.)

Here’s why: Ordinary people collaborate on difficult projects online -- especially online -- often with great success. Take Linux, the open source operating system. The vast majority of people who work on Linux aren’t paid; they’ve incrementally created it in their spare time.

Are you reading this blog on Firefox? Well, guess what? Your browser was built almost entirely by volunteers.

At LexPop, we’re asking people who are passionate about certain issues to give some of their free time to developing better policy, in the same way engineers have asked them to help develop software. Sure, it will be complicated, but people are smart, and given the right opportunity and tools, they’ll be able to (once again) create something extraordinary.

Politics is too controversial -- How can you expect people to come to consensus on one answer?
To answer this question, we like to look to Jesus -- the "Jesus" page on Wikipedia, that is.

There are plenty of controversial topics addressed on Wikipedia, but it’s the pages for these topics that are often the most accurate. Wikipedians who edit the Jesus page know the topic is controversial, so they back up what they say with facts -- otherwise, the crowd of users won’t allow it. Over time, the Jesus page has turned into something that most users are pretty happy about. And this is the similarity between LexPop and Wikipedia: They’re both about collaboratively writing something that isn’t perfect in the eyes of any one participant, but is better than the alternative.

Fine, but isn’t there a better model than a wiki?
This is one of the things we’re trying to figure out, and one of the things with which we need your help. We’re starting with a modified wiki (the three phases), but as we learn, we’ll adapt. A wiki allows a certain type of collaboration (the kind found on Wikipedia), but it may not be the best way to collaborate. Is the three-step process we’re using the right model, or should the phases be combined? With your help, we’ll find out -- and we promise to share our findings.

Will legislation created on LexPop be representative?
We don’t claim that bills made on LexPop will be perfectly representative, and we’re not trying to make representative democracy obsolete. After a bill is written on the site, it will still have to go through the same bill-into-law process as every other piece of legislation.

voxexperts.jpgBut LexPop will certainly be more representative than the system we have now. With LexPop, non-profit organizations with valuable knowledge of an issue, passionate experts well-versed on a topic, and regular voters (Joes the Plumber, if you will) will no longer be shut out of the process. Right now, we live in a world where participation too often means a voter pours out her heart in a letter and receives a form response that the intended recipient didn’t write, read, or even sign. Our system for adding more voices to lawmaking may not be perfect, but it will be less imperfect than the current political system.

LexPop provides a first draft of legislation that’s written by people, not by lobbyists. This is our value-add; we’re opening a new channel for public participation, and taking a step toward a more legitimate and deliberative democracy.

But we need your helpvoxmeeting_brains.jpg

And we need it big time. For a project like this to work, we need participants.

If you’re interested in collaborative democracy, please get involved in the conversation. You’ll be helping even if you post only one comment. Even if you aren’t particularly interested in net neutrality, we encourage you to learn more about it on the site, and then make sure you come back when we have a Policy Drive on your favorite issue.

Also, we’d be grateful if you spread the word about our site. Like us on Facebook, Tweet about LexPop (@LexPopOrg), blog about us, or, even better, let us write a guest blog post on your site (Thanks, VoxPopuLII !).

We’d also love for you to tell us what we’re doing wrong. LexPop is perfect in neither theory nor practice. So please help us make LexPop and, ultimately, deliberative democracy better with your feedback. We have a Google Group for discussion about LexPop, or you can contact us through the website.

Coda

LexPop is a platform for public engagement and empowerment. LexPop provides a space for discussion-driven public policy and a stronger, more agile democracy. LexPop is about more voices. Add yours.

Matt_BacaMatt Baca is a joint J.D./M.P.A. student at New York University School of Law and the Harvard Kennedy School. He's interested law, public policy, government 2.0, and the Rockies (team and mountains).

Olin_Grant_ParkerOlin Parker is a Master's in Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School. His interests include disability policy, education reform, the states of Kansas and Louisiana, and his 17 month-old daughter.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editor in chief is Robert Richards.