skip navigation
search

THE JUDICIAL CONTEXT: WHY INNOVATE?

The progressive deployment of information and communication technologies (ICT) in the courtroom (audio and video recording, document scanning, courtroom management systems), jointly with the requirement for paperless judicial folders pushed by e-justice plans (Council of the European Union, 2009), are quickly transforming the traditional judicial folder into an integrated multimedia folder, where documents, audio recordings and video recordings can be accessed, usually via a Web-based platform. This trend is leading to a continuous increase in the number and the volume of case-related digital judicial libraries, where the full content of each single hearing is available for online consultation. A typical trial folder contains: audio hearing recordings, audio/video hearing recordings, transcriptions of hearing recordings, hearing reports, and attached documents (scanned text documents, photos, evidences, etc.). The ICT container is typically a dedicated judicial content management system (court management system), usually physically separated and independent from the case management system used in the investigative phase, but interacting with it.

Most of the present ICT deployment has been focused on the deployment of case management systems and ICT equipment in the courtrooms, with content management systems at different organisational levels (court or district). ICT deployment in the judiciary has reached different levels in the various EU countries, but the trend toward full e-justice is clearly in progress. Accessibility of the judicial information, both of case registries (more widely deployed), and of case e-folders, has been strongly enhanced by state-of-the-art ICT technologies. Usability of the electronic judicial folders is still affected by a traditional support toolset, such that an information search is limited to text search, transcription of audio recordings (indispensable for text search) is still a slow and fully manual process, template filling is a manual activity, etc. Part of the information available in the trial folder is not yet directly usable, but requires a time-consuming manual search. Information embedded in audio and video recordings, describing not only what was said in the courtroom, but also the specific trial context and the way in which it was said, still needs to be exploited. While the information is there, information extraction and semantically empowered judicial information retrieval still wait for proper exploitation tools. The growing amount of digital judicial information calls for the development of novel knowledge management techniques and their integration into case and court management systems. In this challenging context a novel case and court management system has been recently proposed.

The JUMAS project (JUdicial MAnagement by digital libraries Semantics) was started in February 2008, with the support of the Polish and Italian Ministries of Justice. JUMAS seeks to realize better usability of multimedia judicial folders -- including transcriptions, information extraction, and semantic search --to provide to users a powerful toolset able to fully address the knowledge embedded in the multimedia judicial folder.

The JUMAS project has several objectives:

  • (1) direct searching of audio and video sources without a verbatim transcription of the proceedings;
  • (2) exploitation of the hidden semantics in audiovisual digital libraries in order to facilitate search and retrieval, intelligent processing, and effective presentation of multimedia information;
  • (3) fusing information from multimodal sources in order to improve accuracy during the automatic transcription and the annotation phases;
  • (4) optimizing the document workflow to allow the analysis of (un)structured information for document search and evidence-based assessment; and
  • (5) supporting a large scale, scalable, and interoperable audio/video retrieval system.

JUMAS is currently under validation in the Court of Wroclaw (Poland) and in the Court of Naples (Italy).

THE DIMENSIONS OF THE PROBLEM

In order to explain the relevance of the JUMAS objectives, we report some volume data related to the judicial domain context. Consider, for instance, the Italian context, where there are 167 courts, grouped in 29 districts, with about 1400 courtrooms. In a law court of medium size (10 courtrooms), during a single legal year, about 150 hearings per court are held, with an average duration of 4 hours. Considering that in approximately 40% of them only audio is recorded, in 20% both audio and video, while the remaining 40% has no recording, the multimedia recording volume we are talking about is 2400 hours of audio and 1200 hours of audio/video per year. The dimensioning related to the audio and audio/video documentation starts from the hypothesis that multimedia sources must be acquired at high quality in order to obtain good results in audio transcription and video annotation, which will affect the performance connected to the retrieval functionalities. Following these requirements, one can figure out a storage space of about 8.7 megabytes per minute (MB/min) for audio and 39 MB/min for audio/video. This means that during a legal year for a court of medium size we need to allocate 4 terabytes (TB) for audio/video material. Under these hypotheses, the overall size generated by all the courts in the justice system -- for Italy only -- in one year is about 800 TB. This shows how the justice sector is a major contributor to the data deluge (The Economist, 2010).

In order to manage such quantities of complex data, JUMAS aims to:

  • Optimize the workflow of information through search, consultation, and archiving procedures;
  • Introduce a higher degree of knowledge through the aggregation of different heterogeneous sources;
  • Speed up and improve decision processes by enabling discovery and exploitation of knowledge embedded in multimedia documents, in order to consequently reduce unnecessary costs;
  • Model audio-video proceedings in order to compare different instances; and
  • Allow traceability of proceedings during their evolution.

THE JUMAS SYSTEM

To achieve the above-mentioned goals, the JUMAS project has delivered the JUMAS system, whose main functionalities (depicted in Figure 1) are: automatic speech transcription, emotion recognition, human behaviour annotation, scene analysis, multimedia summarization, template-filling, and deception recognition.

 

Figure 1: Overview of the JUMAS functionalities

The architecture of JUMAS, depicted in Figure 2, is based on a set of key components: a central database, a user interface on a Web portal, a set of media analysis modules, and an orchestration module that allows the coordination of all system functionalities.

Figure 2: Overview of the JUMAS architecture

The media stream recorded in the courtroom includes both audio and video that are analyzed to extract semantic information used to populate the multimedia object database. The outputs of these processes are annotations: i.e., tags attached to media streams and stored in the database (Oracle 11g). The integration among modules is performed through a workflow engine and a module called JEX (JUMAS EXchange library). While the workflow engine is a service application that manages all the modules for audio and video analysis, JEX provides a set of services to upload and retrieve annotations to and from the JUMAS database.

JUMAS: THE ICT COMPONENTS

KNOWLEDGE EXTRACTION

Automatic Speech Transcription. For courtroom users, the primary sources of information are audio-recordings of hearings/proceedings. In light of this, JUMAS provides an Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) system (Falavigna et al., 2009 and Rybach et al., 2009) trained on real judicial data coming from courtrooms. Currently two ASR systems have been developed: the first provided by Fondazione Bruno Kessler for the Italian language, and the second delivered by RWTH Aachen University for the Polish language. Currently, the ASR modules in the JUMAS system offer 61% accuracy over the generated automatic transcriptions, and represent the first contribution for populating the digital libraries with judicial trial information. In fact, the resulting transcriptions are the main information resource that are to be enriched by other modules, and then can be consulted by end users through the information retrieval system.

Emotion Recognition. Emotional states represent an aspect of knowledge embedded into courtroom media streams that may be used to enrich the content available in multimedia digital libraries. Enabling the end user to consult transcriptions by considering the associated semantics as well, represents an important achievement, one that allows the end user to retrieve an enriched written sentence instead of a “flat” one. Even if there is an open ethical discussion about the usability of this kind of information, this achievement radically changes the consultation process: sentences can assume different meanings according to the affective state of the speaker. To this purpose an emotion recognition module (Archetti et al., 2008), developed by the Consorzio Milano Ricerche jointly with the University of Milano-Bicocca, is part of the JUMAS system. A set of real-world human emotions obtained from courtroom audio recordings has been gathered for training the underlying supervised learning model.

Human Behavior Annotation. A further fundamental information resource is related to the video stream. In addition to emotional states identification, the recognition of relevant events that characterize judicial proceedings can be valuable for end users. Relevant events occurring during proceedings trigger meaningful gestures, which emphasize and anchor the words of witnesses, and highlight that a relevant concept has been explained. For this reason, the human behavior recognition modules (Briassouli et al., 2009, Kovacs et al., 2009), developed by CERTH-ITI and by MTA SZTAKI Research Institute, have been included in the JUMAS system. The video analysis captures relevant events that occur during the course of a trial in order to create semantic annotations that can be retrieved by judicial end users. The annotations are mainly concerned with the events related to the witness: change of posture, change of witness, hand gestures, gestures indicating conflict or disagreement.

Deception Detection. Discriminating between truthful and deceptive assertions is one of the most important activities performed by judges, lawyers, and prosecutors. In order to support these individuals' reasoning activities, respecting corroborating/contradicting declarations (in the case of lawyers and prosecutors) and judging the accused (judges), a deception recognition module has been developed as a support tool. The deception detection module developed by the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies is based on the automatic classification of sentences performed by the ASR systems (Ganter and Strube, 2009). In particular, in order to train the deception detection module, a manual annotation of the output of the ASR module -- with the help of the minutes of the transcribed sessions -- has been performed. The knowledge extracted for training the classification module deals with lies, contradictory statements, quotations, and expressions of vagueness.

Information Extraction. The current amount of unstructured textual data available in the judicial domain, especially related to transcriptions of proceedings, highlights the necessity of automatically extracting structured data from unstructured material, to facilitate efficient consultation processes. In order to address the problem of structuring data coming from the automatic speech transcription system, Consorzio Milano Ricerche has defined an environment that combines regular expressions, probabilistic models, and background information available in each court database system. Thanks to this functionality, the judicial actors can view each individual hearing as a structured summary, where the main information extracted consists of the names of the judge, lawyers, defendant, victim, and witnesses; the names of the subjects cited during a deposition; the date cited during a deposition; and data about the verdict.

KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT

Information Retrieval. Currently, to retrieve audio/video materials acquired during a trial, the end user must manually consult all of the multimedia tracks. The identification of a particular position or segment of a multimedia stream, for purposes of looking at and/or listening to specific declarations, is possible either by remembering the time stamp when the events occurred, or by watching or hearing the whole recording. The amalgamation of automatic transcriptions, semantic annotations, and ontology representations allows us to build a flexible retrieval environment, based not only on simple textual queries, but also on broad and complex concepts. In order to define an integrated platform for cross-modal access to audio and video recordings and their automatic transcriptions, a retrieval module able to perform semantic multimedia indexing and retrieval has been developed by the Information Retrieval group at MTA SZTAKI. (Darczy et al., 2009)

Ontology as Support to Information Retrieval. An ontology is a formal representation of the knowledge that characterizes a given domain, through a set of concepts and a set of relationships that obtain among them. In the judicial domain, an ontology represents a key element that supports the retrieval process performed by end users. Text-based retrieval functionalities are not sufficient for finding and consulting transcriptions (and other documents) related to a given trial. A first contribution of the ontology component developed by the University of Milano-Bicocca (CSAI Research Center) for the JUMAS system provides query expansion functionality. Query expansion aims at extending the original query specified by end users with additional related terms. The whole set of keywords is then automatically submitted to the retrieval engine. The main objective is to narrow the search focus or to increase recall.

User Generated Semantic Annotations. Judicial users usually manually tag some documents for purposes of highlighting (and then remembering) significant portions of the proceedings. An important functionality, developed by the European Media Laboratory and offered by the JUMAS system, relates to the possibility of digitally annotating relevant arguments discussed during a proceeding. In this context, the user-generated annotations may aid judicial users in future retrieval and reasoning processes. The user-generated annotations module included in the JUMAS system allows end users to assign free tags to multimedia content in order to organize the trials according to their personal preferences. It also enables judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and court clerks to work collaboratively on a trial; e.g., a prosecutor who is taking over a trial can build on the notes of his or her predecessor.

KNOWLEDGE VISUALIZATION

Hyper Proceeding Views. The user interface of JUMAS -- developed by ESA Projekt and Consorzio Milano Ricerche -- is a Web portal, in which the contents of the database are presented in different views. The basic view allows browsing of the trial archive, as in a typical court management system, to view general information (dates of hearings, name of people involved) and documents attached to each trial. JUMAS's distinguishing features include the automatic creation of a summary of the trial, the presentation of user-generated annotations, and the Hyper Proceeding View: i.e., an advanced presentation of media contents and annotations that allows the user to perform queries on contents, and jump directly to relevant parts of media files.

 

Multimedia Summarization. Digital videos represent a fundamental information resource about the events that occur during a trial: such videos can be stored, organized, and retrieved in a short time and at low cost. However, considering the dimensions that a video resource can assume during the recording of a trial, judicial actors have specified several requirements for digital trial videos: fast navigation of the stream, efficient access to data within the stream, and effective representation of relevant contents. One possible solution to these requirements lies in multimedia summarization, which derives a synthetic representation of audio/video contents with a minimal loss of meaningful information. In order to address the problem of defining a short and meaningful representation of a proceeding, a multimedia summarization environment based on an unsupervised learning approach has been developed (Fersini et al., 2010) by Consorzio Milano Ricerche jointly with University of Milano-Bicocca.

CONCLUSION

The JUMAS project demonstrates the feasibility of enriching a court management system with an advanced toolset for extracting and using the knowledge embedded in a multimedia judicial folder. Automatic transcription, template filling, and semantic enrichment help judicial actors not only to save time, but also to enhance the quality of their judicial decisions and performance. These improvements are mainly due to the ability to search not only text, but also events that occur in the courtroom. The initial results of the JUMAS project indicate that automatic transcription and audio/video annotations can provide additional information in an affordable way.

Elisabetta Fersini has a post-doctoral research fellow position at the University of Milano-Bicocca. She received her PhD with a thesis on “Probabilistic Classification and Clustering using Relational Models.” Her research interest is mainly focused on (Relational) Machine Learning in several domains, including Justice, Web, Multimedia, and Bioinformatics.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt.

Editor-in-Chief is Robert Richards, to whom queries should be directed.

borgestotallibrary.jpgIn an extraordinary story, Jorge Luis Borges writes of a "Total Library", organized into 'hexagons' that supposedly contained all books:

When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. . . . At that time a great deal was said about the Vindications: books of apology and prophecy which . . . [contained] prodigious arcana for [the] future. Thousands of the greedy abandoned their sweet native hexagons and rushed up the stairways, urged on by the vain intention of finding their Vindication. These pilgrims disputed in the narrow corridors . . . strangled each other on the divine stairways . . . . Others went mad. . . . The Vindications exist . . . but the searchers did not remember that the possibility of a man's finding his Vindication, or some treacherous variation thereof, can be computed as zero.  As was natural, this inordinate hope was followed by an excessive depression. The certitude that some shelf in some hexagon held precious books and that these precious books were inaccessible, seemed almost intolerable.

About three years ago I spent almost an entire sleepless month coding OpenJudis - my rather cool, "first-of-its-kind" free online database of Indian Supreme Court cases. The database hosts the full texts of about 25,000 cases decided since 1950. In this post I embark on a somewhat personal reflection on the process of creating OpenJudis - what I learnt about access to law (in India), and about "legal informatics," along with some meditations on future pathways.

Having, by now, attended my share of FLOSS events, I know it is the invariable tendency of anyone who's written two lines of free code to consider themselves qualified to pronounce on lofty themes - the nature of freedom and liberty, the commodity, scarcity, etc. With OpenJudis, likewise, I feel like I've acquired the necessary license to inflict my theory of the world on hapless readers - such as those at VoxPopuLII!

I begin this post by describing the circumstances under which I began coding OpenJudis. This is followed by some of my reflections on how "legal informatics" relates to and could relate to law.

Online Access to Law in India
India is privileged to have quite a robust ICT architecture. Internet access is relatively India Cyber Cafeinexpensive, and the ubiquity of "cyber cafes" has resulted in extensive Internet penetration, even in the absence of individual subscriptions.

Government bodies at all levels are statutorily obliged to publish, on the Internet, vital information regarding their structure and functioning. The National Informatics Centre (NIC), a public sector corporation, is responsible for hosting, maintaining and updating the websites of government bodies across the country. These include, inter alia, the websites of the Union (federal) Government, the various state governments, union and state ministries, constitutional bodies such as the Election Commission and the Planning Commission, and regulatory bodies such as the Securities Exchange Board of India (SEBI). These websites typically host a wealth of useful information including, illustratively, the full texts of applicable legislations, subordinate legislations, administrative rulings, reports, census data, application forms etc.

The NIC has also been commissioned by the judiciary to develop websites for courts at various levels and publish decisions online. As a result, beginning in around the year 2000, the Supreme Court and various high courts have been publishing their decisions on their websites. The full texts of all Supreme Court decisions rendered since 1950 have been made available, which is an invaluable free resource for the public. Most High Court websites however, have not yet made archival material available online, so at present, access remains limited to decisions from the year 2000 onwards. More recently the NIC has begun setting up websites for subordinate courts, although this process is still at a very embryonic stage.

Apart from free government websites, a handful of commercial enterprises have been providing online access to legal materials. Among them, two deserve special mention. SCCOnline - a product of one of the leading law report publishers in India - provides access to the full texts of decisions of the Indian Supreme Court. The CD version of SCCOnline sells for about INR 70,000 (about US$1,500), which is around the same price the company charges for a full set of print volumes of its reporter. For an additional charge, the company offers updates to the database. The other major commercial venture in the field is Manupatra, which offers access to the full text of decisions of various courts and tribunals as well as the texts of legislation. Access is provided for a basic charge of about US$100, plus a charge of about US$1 per document downloaded. While seemingly modest by international standards, these charges are unaffordable by large sections of the legal profession and the lay public.

OpenJudis
In December 2006, I began coding OpenJudis. My reasons were purely selfish. While the full texts of the decisions of the Supreme Court were already available online for free, the search engine on the government website was unreliable and inadequate for (my) advanced research needs. The formatting of the text of cases themselves was untidy, and it was cumbersome to extract passages from them. Frequently, the website appeared overloaded with users, and alternate free sources were unavailable. I couldn't afford any of the commercial databases. My own private dissatisfaction with the quality of service, coupled with (in retrospect) my completely naive optimism, led me to attempt OpenJudis. A third crucial factor on the input side was time, and a "room of my own," which I could afford only because of a generous fellowship I had from the Open Society Institute.

I began rashly, by serially downloading the full texts of the 25,000 decisions on the India’s Supreme CourtSupreme Court website. Once that was done (it took about a week), I really had no notion of how to proceed. I remember being quite exhilarated by the sheer fact of being in possession of twenty five thousand Supreme Court decisions. I don't think I can articulate the feeling very well. (I have some hope, however, that readers of this blog and my fellow LII-ers will intuitively understand this feeling.) Here I was, an average Joe poking around on the Internet, and just-like-that I now had an archive of 25,000 key documents of our republic,  cumulatively representing the articulations of some of the finest (and  some not-so-fine) legal minds of the previous half-century,  sitting on my laptop. And I could do anything with them.

The word "archive," incidentally, as Derrida informs us, derives from the Greek arkheion, the residence of the superior magistrates, the archons - those who commanded. The archons both "held and signified political power," and were considered to possess the right to both "make and represent the law." "Entrusted to such archons, these documents in effect speak the law: they recall the law and call on or impose the law". Surely, or I am much mistaken, a very significant transformation has occurred when ordinary citizens become capable of housing Return of the Archonsarchives - when citizens can assume the role of archons at will.

Giddy with power, I had an immediate impulse to find a way to transmit this feeling, to make it portable, to dissipate it - an impulse that will forever mystify economists wedded to "rational" incentive-based models of human behavior. I wasn't a computer engineer, I didn't have the foggiest idea how I'd go about it, but I was somehow going to host my own online free database of Indian Supreme Court cases. The audacity of this optimism bears out one of Yochai Benkler's insights about the changes wrought by the new "networked information economy" we inhabit. According to Benkler,

The belief that it is possible to make something valuable happen in the world, and the practice of actually acting on that belief, represent a qualitative improvement in the condition of individual freedom [because of NIE]. They mark the emergence of new practices of self-directed agency as a lived experience, going beyond mere formal permissibility and theoretical possibility.

Without my intending it, the archive itself suggested my next task. I had to clean up the text and extract metadata. This process occupied me for the longest time during the development of OpenJudis. I was very new to programming and had only just discovered the joys of Regular Expressions. More than my inexperience with programming techniques, however, it was the utter heterogeneity of reporting styles that took me a while to accustom myself to. Both opinion-writing and reporting styles had changed dramatically in the course of the fifty years my database covered, and this made it difficult to find patterns when extracting, say, the names of judges involved. Eventually, I had cleaned up the texts of the decisions and extracted an impressive (I thought) set of metadata, including the names of parties, the names of the judges, and the date the case was decided. To compensate for the absence of headnotes, I extracted names of statutes cited in the cases as a rough indicator of what their case might relate to. I did all this programming in PHP with the data housed in a MySQL database.

And then I encountered my first major roadblock that threatened to jeopardize the wholePunching Computer operation: I ran my first full-text Boolean search on the MySQL database and the results took a staggering 20 minutes to display. I was devastated! More elaborate searches took longer. Clearly, this was not a model I could host online. Or do anything useful with. Nobody in their right mind would want to wait 20 minutes for the results of their search. I had to look for a quicker database, or, as I eventually discovered, a super fast, lightweight indexing search engine. After a number of failed attempts with numerous free search engine software programs, none of which offered either the desired speed or the search capability I wanted, I was getting quite desperate. Fortunately, I discovered Swish-e, a lightweight, Perl-based Boolean search engine which was extremely fast and, most importantly, free - exactly what I needed. The final stage of creating the interface, uploading the database, and activating the search engine happened very quickly, and sometime in the early hours of December 22nd, 2006, OpenJudis went live. I sent announcement emails out to several e-groups and waited for the millions to show up at my doorstep.

They never did. After a week, I had maybe a hundred users. In a month, a few hundred. I received some very complimentary emails, which was nice, but it didn't compensate for the failure of "millions" to show up. Over the next year, I added some improvements:
1) First, I built an automatic update feature that would periodically check the Supreme Court website for new cases and update the database on its own.
2) In October 2007, I coded a standalone MS Windows application of the database that could be installed on any system running Windows XP. This made sense in a country where PC penetration is higher than Internet penetration. The Windows application became quite popular and I received numerous requests for CDs from different corners of the country.
3) Around the same time, I also coded a similar application for decisions of the Central Information Commission - the apex statutory tribunal for adjudicating disputes under the Right to Information Act.
4) In February 2008, both applications were included in the DVD of Digit Magazine - a popular IT magazine in India.

Unfortunately, in August 2008, the Supreme Court website changed its design so that decisions could no longer be downloaded serially in the manner I had been accustomed to. One can only speculate about what prompted this change - since no improvements were made to the actual presentation of the cases. The only thing that changed was that one could no longer download cases serially as I'd been doing. The new format was far more difficult for me to "hack" and I abandoned the attempt. My work left me with no time to attempt to circumvent the new format.

Fortunately at the same time, an exciting new project called IndianKanoon was started by Sushant Sinha, an Indian computer science graduate at Michigan. In addition to decisions of the Supreme Court, his site covers several high courts and links up to the text of legislation of various kinds. Although I have not abandoned plans to develop OpenJudis, the presence of IndianKanoon has allowed me to step back entirely from this domain - secure in the knowledge that it is being taken forward by abler hands than mine.

Predictions, Observations, Conclusions
I'd like to end this already-too-long post with some reflections, randomly ordered, about legal information online.
1) I think one crucial area commonly neglected by most LIIs is client-side software that enables users to store local copies of entire databases. The urgency of this need is highlighted in the following hypothetical about digital libraries by Siva Vaidhyanathan (from The Anarchist in the Library):

So imagine this: An electronic journal is streamed into a library. A library Anarchist in Librarynever has it on its shelf, never owns a paper copy, can’t archive it for posterity. Its patrons can access the material and maybe print it, maybe not. But if the subscription runs out, if the library loses funding and has to cancel that subscription, or if the company itself goes out of business, all the material is gone. The library has no trace of what it bought: no record, no archive. It’s lost entirely.

It may be true that the Internet will be around for some time, but it might be worthwhile for LIIs to stop emulating the commercial database models of restricting control while enabling access. Only then can we begin to take seriously the task of empowering users into archons.

2) My second observation pertains to interface and usability. I have for long been planning to incorporate a set of features including tagging, highlighting, annotating, and bookmarking that I myself would most like to use. Additionally, I have been musing about using Web 2.0 to enable user-participation in maintenance and value-add operations - allowing users to proofread the text of judgments and to compose headnotes. At its most ambitious, in these "visions" of mine, OpenJudis looks like a combination of LII + social networking + Wikipedia.

A common objection to this model is that it would upset the authority of legal texts. In his brilliant essay A Brief History of the Internet from the 15th to the 18th century, the philosopher Lawrence Liang reminds us that the authority of knowledge that we today ascribe to printed text was contested for the longest period in modern history.

Far from ensuring fixity or authority, this early history of Printing was marked by uncertainty, and the constant refrain for a long time was that you could not rely on the book; a French scholar Adrien Baillet warned in 1685 that "the multitude of books which grows every day" would cast Europe into "a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire."

Europe's non-descent into barbarism offers us a degree of comfort in dealing with Adrien Baillet-type arguments made in the context of legal information. The stability that we ascribe to law reports today is a relatively recent historical innovation that began in the mid-19th century. "Modern" law has longer roots than that.

3) While OpenJudis may look like quite a mammoth endeavor for one person, I was at all times intensely aware that this was by no means a solitary undertaking, and that I was "standing on the shoulders of giants." They included the nameless thousands at the NIC who continue to design websites, scan and upload cases on the court websites - a Sisyphian task - and  the thousands whose labor collectively produced the free software I used : Fedora Core 4, PHP, MySQL, Swish-E. And lastly, the nameless millions who toil to make the physical infrastructure of the Internet itself possible. Like the ground beneath our feet, we take it for granted, even as the tragic recent events in Haiti in recent weeks remind us to be more attentive. (For a truly Herculean endeavor, however, see Sushant Sinha's IndianKanoon website, about which many ballads may be composed in the decades to come.)

It might be worthwhile for the custodians of LIIs to enable users to become derivative producers themselves, to engage in "practices of self-directed agency" as Benkler suggests. Without sounding immodest, I think the real story of OpenJudis is how the Internet makes it plausible and thinkable for average Joes like me (and better-than-average people like Sushant Sinha) to think of waging unilateral wars against publishing empires.

4) So, what is the impact that all this ubiquitous, instant, free electronic access to legal information is likely to have on the world of law? In a series of lectures titled "Archive Fever," the philosopher Derrida posed a similar question in a somewhat different context: What would the discipline of psychoanalysis have looked like, he asked, if Sigmund Freud and his contemporaries had had access to computers, televisions, and email? In brief, his answer was that the discipline of psychoanalysis itself would not have been the same - it would have been transformed "from the bottom up" and its very events would have been altered. This is because, in Derrida's view:

The archive . . . in general is not only the place for stocking and for conserving an archivable content of the past. . . .  No, the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content even in its coming into existence and in its relationship to the future. The archivization produces as much as it records the event.

The implication, following Derrida, is that in the past, law would not have been what itDerrida currently is if electronic archives had been possible. And the obverse is true as well:  in the future, because of the Internet, "rule of law" will no longer observe the logic of the stable trajectories suggested by its classical "analog" commentators. New trajectories will have to be charted.

5) In the same book, Derrida describes a condition he calls "Archive fever":

It is to burn with a passion. It is never to rest, interminably, from searching for the archive right where it slips away. It is to run after the archive even if there's too much of it. It is to have a compulsive, repetitive and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement.

I don't know about other readers of VoxPopulII (if indeed you've managed to continue reading this far!), but for the longest time during and after OpenJudis, I suffered distinctively from this malady. I downloaded indiscriminately whole sets of data that still sit unused on my computer, not having made it into OpenJudis. For those in a similar predicament, I offer Borges's quote with which I began this text, as a reminder of the foolishness of the notion of "Total Libraries."

Prashant IyengarPrashant Iyengar is a lawyer affiliated with the Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore, India. He is currently pursuing his graduate studies at Columbia University in New York. He runs OpenJudis, a free database of Indian Supreme Court cases.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editor in Chief is Rob Richards.

good-housekeeping-logonew.gifWhen I first started off in the field of Internet publishing of legal materials, I did, briefly consider the topic of authenticity, and its importance to the end user.  My conclusion back then rested on the simple consideration that since I was a librarian and was acting under the aegis of a university, I had no problem.  In fact, my initial vision of the future of legal publishing was that as academic libraries strove to gain ownership and control over the content they needed in electronic form, they would naturally begin to harvest and preserve electronic documents.  Authentication would be a natural product of everyone having a copy from a trusted source, because the only ax we have to grind is serving accurate information.  Ubiquitous ownership from trustworthy sources.

Of course, I was new to the profession then, and very idealistic.  I grossly underestimated the degree to which universities, and the librarians that serve them, would be willing to place their futures in the hands of a very small number of commercial vendors, who keep a very tight grip on their information. This gradually reduces the librarian to the role of local administrator of other people's information.

So much for us librarians.  Even without us, however, end users still need trustworthy information.  We are confronted with a new set of choices.  On the one hand, there is expensive access to the collection of a large vendor, who has earned the trust of their users through both long tradition and by their sheer power over the market.   On the other, there are court and government-based sources, which generally make efforts to avoid holding themselves out as either official or as reliably authenticated sources, and a number of smaller enterprises, which offer lower cost or free access to materials that they harvest, link to, or generate from print themselves.

For the large publishers, the issue of authentication is not a serious issue.  Their well earned reputations for reliability are not seriously questioned by the market that buys their product.  And, by all accounts, their editorial staffs ensure this continues.

So, what about everyone else?  In the instance of publishing court decisions, for example, Justia, Cornell's LII, etc.,  collect their documents from the same “unofficial” court sources as the large publishers, but the perceived trustworthiness is not necessarily the same with some user communities.  This is understandable, and, to a great extent, can only be addressed through the passing of time.  The law is a conservative community when it comes to its information.

Along with this, I think it also important to realize that this lack of trust has another, deeper component to ul.jpgit.  I see signs of it when librarians and others insist on the importance of “official” and “authentic” information, while at the same time putting complete and unquestioned trust in the unofficial and unauthenticated offerings of traditional publishers.
Of course, a great deal of this has to do with the already mentioned reputations of these publishers.  But I think there is also a sense in which there has been a comfort in the role of publishers as gatekeepers that makes it easy to rely on their offerings, and which is missing from information that comes freely on the Internet.

In the context of scholarly journals, this has been discussed explicitly.  In that case, the role of gatekeeper is easily defined in terms of the editorial boards that vet all submissions.  In the case of things like court decisions, however, the role of the gatekeeper is not so clear, but the desire to have one seems to remain.  The result is discussions about the possibility of errors and purposeful alterations in free Internet law sources that often seem odd and strangely overblown. They seem that way to us publishers, that is.

So, for me, the crux of any debate about authentication comes down to this disconnect between the perceptions and needs of the professional and librarian communities, and what most Internet law publishers do to produce accurate information for the public.

As I said earlier, time will play a role in this.  The truly reliable will prove themselves to be such, and will survive.  The extent to which the Cornell LII is already considered an authoritative source for the U.S. Supreme Court is good evidence of this.  At the same time, there is much to be gained from taking some fairly easy and reasonable measures to demonstrate the accuracy of the documents being made available.

The utility of this goes beyond just building trust.  The kind of information generated in authenticating a document is also important in the context of creating and maintaining durable electronic archives.  As such, we should all look to implement these practices.

The first element of an authentication system is both obvious and easy to overlook: disclosure.  An explanation of how a publisher obtains the material on offer, and how that material is handled should be documented and available to prospective users.  For the public, this explanation needs to be on a page on the website.  It's a perfect candidate for inclusion on a FAQ page. (Yes, even if no one has asked. I mean really, how many people really count questions received before creating their FAQs?). For the archive, it is essential that this information also be embedded in the document metadata.  A simple Dublin Core source tag is a start, but something along the lines of the TEI <sourceDesc> and <revisionDesc> tags are essential here (See http://www.tei-c.org/release/doc/tei-p5-doc/html/HD.html) .

An explanation of the source of a document will show the user a chain of custody leading back to an original source.  The next step is to do something to make that chain of custody verifiable.

It is at this point where things can either stay reasonable, or can spin off toward some expensive extremes, so let's be clear about the ground rules.  We concerned with public-domain documents, which are not going to be sold (so no money transfer is involved), and where no confidential information is being passed.  For these reasons, site encryption and SSL certificates are overkill.  We aren't concerned with the <i>transmission</i> of the documents, only their preparation and maintenance.  The need is for document-level verification.  For that, the easy and clear answer is in a digital signature.
At the Government Printing Office (GPO), the PDF version of new legislative documents are being verified with a digital signature provided by GeoTrust CA and handled by Adobe, Inc.  These are wonderful, and provide a high level of reliability.  For the initial provider, they make a certain amount of sense.

However, I question the need for an outside provider to certify the authenticity of a document that is being provided directly from GPO.  Note what the certification really amounts to:  an MD5 hash that has been verified and “certified” by GeoTrust.  It's nice because anyone can click on the GPO logo and see the certificate contents.  The certificate itself, however, doesn't do anything more than that.  The important thing is the MD5 sum upon which the certificate relies.
In  addition, the certificate is invalid as soon as any alterations whatsoever are made to the document.  Again, this makes some sense, but does not address the need and utility to add value to the original document, such as format conversion to HTML, XML or other useful formats, insertion of hypertext links, addition of significant metadata, etc.

The answer to this problem is to retain the MD5 sum, while dropping the certificate.  The retained MD5 sum can still be used to demonstrate a chain of custody.  For example, here at Rutgers–Camden, we collect New Jersey Appeals decisions provided to us by the courts.  As they are downloaded from the court's server in MS Word format, we have started generating an MD5 sum of this original file.  The document is converted to HTML with embedded metadata and hypertext links, but the MD5 sum of the original is included in the metadata.  It can be compared to the original Word document on the court's server to verify that what we got was exactly what they provided.

The next step is to generate an additional MD5 sum of the HTML file that we generated from the original.  Of course, this can't be embedded in the file, but it is retained in the database that has a copy of all the document metadata, and can be queried anytime needed.  That, combined with an explanation of the revisions performed on the document completes the chain of custody.  As embedded in our documents, the revision notes are put in as an HTML-ized variation on the TEI revision description, and look  like this:
<META NAME="revisionDate" CONTENT="Wed May  6 17:05:56 EDT 2009">
<META NAME="revisionDesc" CONTENT="Downloaded from NJAOC as MS Word document, converted to HTML with wvHtml. Citations converted to hypertext links.">
<META NAME=”orig_md5” CONTENT=”8cc57f9e06513fdd14534a2d54a91737”>

Another possible method for doing this sort of thing would be the strategy suggested by Thomas Bruce and the Cornell LII.  Instead of generating an original and subsequent MD5 sum, one might generate a single digital signature of the document's text stream, stripped of all formatting, tagging, and graphics.  The result should be an MD5 sum that would be the same for both the original document, and the processed document, no matter what the subsequent format alterations or other legitimate value-added tagging that were done.

The attraction of a single digital signature that would identify any accurate copy of a document is obvious, and may ultimately be the way to proceed.  In order for it to work, however, things like minor inconsistencies in the treatment of  “insignificant” whitespace (See  http://www.oracle.com/technology/pub/articles/wang-whitespace.html for an explanation), and the treatment of other odd things (like macro generated dates, etc. in MS Word), would have to be carefully accounted for and consistently treated.
Finally,  I don't think any discussion of authenticity and reliability of legal information on the Internet should leave out a point I hinted at earlier in this article.  In the long run, information does not, and will not survive without widespread distribution.  In this time of  cheap disk space and fast Internet connections, we have the unprecedented opportunity to preserve information through widespread distribution.  Shared and mirrored repositories among numbers of educational and other institutions would be a force for enormous good.  Imagine an institution recovering from the catastrophic loss of their collections by merely re-downloading from any of hundreds of sister institutions.  Such a thing is possible now.

In such an environment, with many sources and repositories easily accessible, all of which are in the business only of maintaining accurate information, reliable data would tend to become the market norm.  You simply could not maintain a credible repository that contained errors, either intentional or accidental, in a world where there are many accurate repositories openly available.

Widespread distribution, along with things like the above suggestions, are the keys to a reliable and durable information infrastructure.  Each of us who would publish and maintain a digital repository needs to take steps to insure that their information is verifiably authentic.   And then, we need to hope that sooner or later, we will be joined by others.

There. I am still a naive optimist.

Joergensen 2010
John Joergensen is the digital services librarian at Rutgers University
School of Law - Camden.  He publishes a wide range of New Jersey primary
source materials, and is digitizing the libraries collection of
congressional documents.  These are available at
http://lawlibrary.rutgers.edu.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt.  Editor in Chief is Rob Richards.