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1. The Death and Life of Great Legal Data Standards

VOX.open.for.businessThanks 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 tim@robotandhwang.org, 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.

Blind Justice

Crime investigation is a difficult and laborious process. In a large case, investigators, judges and jurors are faced with a mass of unstructured evidence of which they have to make sense. They are expected, often without any prior formal training, to map out complex scenarios and assess the potential relevance of a vast amount of evidence to each of these hypothetical scenarios. Humans can only process a limited amount of information at once and various cognitive and social biases  such as tunnel vision, groupthink and confirmation bias may lead to unwanted situations and mistakes. Such mistakes, which seem almost unavoidable given the difficult nature of the task, can have a large impact on those involved in the case and in the past there have been a number of miscarriages of justice.

Reasoning with criminal evidence requires one to structure the individual pieces of incoming information. In addition to conventional database and spreadsheet programs, a number of programs, such as those produced by CaseSoft and i2, have been designed specifically for intelligence analysis. However, these tools have one major drawback, in that they do not allow analysts to express their reasoning in the case: the creation and evaluation of scenarios using evidence still take place in the heads of the analysts. At a time when knowledge- and argument mapping is taking off as a field that has to be taken seriously, this seems like a missed opportunity.

The project Making Sense of Evidence, which ran from 2005 to 2009, set out to develop a specialist support tool, in which not only the evidence and scenarios or stories can be structured in a simple way but in which it is also possible to express one's reasoning about the evidence and stories using a sound underlying theory. Using insights from such diverse fields as legal theory, legal psychology, philosophy, argumentation theory, cognitive modelling and artificial intelligence (AI), a broad theory that both describes and prescribes  how crime investigation and criminal legal decision making (should) take place was developed by me in conjunction with Henry Prakken, Bart Verheij and Peter van Koppen. At the same time, Susan van den Braak (together with Gerard Vreeswijk) developed a support tool for crime investigation based on this theory and extensively tested this tool with police analysts (together with Herre van Oostendorp).

analysis processCrime investigation, legal decision making and the process of proof

Crime investigation and legal decision making both fall under what Wigmore calls the process of proof, an iterative process of discovering, testing and justifying various hypotheses in the case. Pirolli and Card have proposed an insightful model of intelligence analysis.  In Pirolli and Card’s model, the process consists of two main phases, namely foraging and sense-making. In the foraging phase, basic structure is given to a mass of evidence by schematizing the raw evidence into categories, time lines or relation schemes. In the sense-making phase, complex hypotheses consisting of scenarios and evidence are built and evaluated and these results are then presented. It is this last phase in which we are particularly interested: the existing tools for evidence analysis already support the foraging phase.

Reasoning with evidence: stories or arguments?

In the research on reasoning with criminal evi­dence, two main trends can be distinguished: the argumentative approach and the narrative approach. Arguments are constructed by taking items of evidence and reasoning towards a conclusion respecting facts at issue in the case. This approach has its roots in Toulmin’s argument structure and Wigmore’s evidence charts and has been adapted by influential legal theorists. It has been characterized as evidential reasoning because of the relations underlying each reasoning step: ‘a witness testifying to some event is evidence for the occurrence of the event’. Argumentative reasoning has also been called atomistic because the various elements of a case (i.e. hypotheses, evidential data) are considered separately and the case is not considered ‘as a whole’.

Hypothetical stories based on the evidence can be constructed, telling us what (might have) hap­pened in a case. Alter­native stories about what happened before, during and after the crime should then be compared ac­cording to their plausibility and the amount of evidence they explain. This approach has been advocated by people from the field of cognitive psychology as being the most natural approach to evidential reasoning. It has been characterized as causal reasoning because of the relations between the events in a story: ‘Because the suspect did not want to get caught by the police, he got in his car and drove off’. The story-based approach has also been called holistic (as opposed to atomistic), because the events are considered as a whole and the indi­vidual elements receive less attention.

Both the argument-based and the story-based approaches have their advantages. The argument-based approach, whicstory argumenth builds on a significant academic tradition of research, is well suited for a thorough analysis of the individual pieces of evidence, whilst the empirically tested story-based approach is appreciated for its natural account of crime scenarios and causal reasoning. Therefore, in my thesis I have proposed a hybrid theory that combines stories and arguments into one theory. In this hybrid theory, hypothetical stories about what (might have) happened in a case can be anchored in evidence using evidential arguments. Furthermore, arguments can be used to reason about the plausibility of a story.

Sense-making using argument mapping

In recent times, the interest in so-called sense-making systems tools has increased exponentially. In contrast to classic knowledge based systems from Artificial Intelligence, these sense-making systems do not contain a knowledge base and do not reason automatically. Instead, they are intended to help the user make sense out of a certain problem by allowing him or her to logically structure his or her knowledge and reasoning. Thus, they help users make sense out of a certain problem by allowing them to store, share and search knowledge in a structured and intuitive way. The techniques used in sense-making systems include mind maps, concept maps, issue maps and argument maps. Whilst each of these techniques has its own merits, the technique of argument mapping is of particular interest to the current discussion.

traffic managerArgument mapping, or argument visualization, traces its origins back to Wigmore, who carefully defined a complex visual language for reasoning with a mass of evidence. In the 1990’s, the advent of faster and more GUI-equipped computer programs stimulated the interest in argument mapping and specific software tools for performing these visualizations of argument.  For example, in 1998 Robert Horn released a series of complex maps about one of the main debates in AI: can computers think? Software tools for argument visualization have since been used for a variety of purposes. For example, Araucaria is used in legal education, making students familiar with legal argument, and in legal practice, aiding judges in handling simple cases by providing checklists in the form of critical questions to an argument.  Rationale is used in university courses to teach critical thinking and in a variety of consultancy tasks, such as producing a report for the army on whether or not to buy a new tank. Debategraph is a wiki debate visualization tool which aims to increase the transparency and rigor of public debate on the internet. The program has made it into mainstream media, as it will be used by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. Cohere has similar aims, allowing for the visualization of ideas and debates on the web. The Online Visualisation of Argument (OVA) suite of argument mapping tools, while similar to Debategraph and Cohere in that it is world wide argumentbuilt to support the idea of a global World Wide Argument Web, has its own niche appeal in that it deals specifically with structured arguments and is explicitly based on rigorous academic theories of (computational) argumentation.

Tools for argument visualization work because they force one to make explicit the various elements of one's reasoning, such as the premises and conclusions of an argument or the claims made by the participants in a discussion. Thus, certain ambiguities can be avoided. For example, (evidential) relations between the various elements in an argument can be clearly represented as arrows, whereas in natural language arguments clues that point to possible inferences are often left implicit or phrased ambiguously. Another example of argument visualization's aiding complex reasoning is when there is more than one reason for a conclusion. As natural language text by its very nature imposes a sequential structure, visualizing the argument can help a great deal.

Story-mapping?

Tools for argument mapping can be worthwhile additions to the existing support software for crime investigation, because these tools enable the structuring, not only of the evidence itself, but also of the reasoning based on this evidence. However, as was argued above, reasoning in the process of proof does not just involve argumentation; stories or narratives play an equally important role.

The existing support software, such as Analyst’s Notebook, makes it possible to incorporate skeleton stories by drawing timelines. However, it is not just the events or sequence of events which makes a story. A proper story also needs to be coherent; that is, its (causal) structure needs to be believable. Because the plausibility of a story depends on the prior beliefs someone has, it is very subjective and therefore open to argument. The existing argument mapping software does not allow for the visualization of stories. Arguments in this software mainly focus on one or two main claims, whereas a story is usually about the greater whole. Although arguments for individual events in a story can be visualized in the current tools, those tools do not allow for the explicit representation of a story’s structure and the relations between the events in a story.

Our project developed a tool, AVERS, which allows for the visualization of causally connectedAVERS scenarios as well as the arguments supporting or attacking these scenarios. Thus, AVERS allows one to show how a scenario is contradicted by evidence, and to reason about the stories themselves. Arguments can be directly linked to source documents and the type of evidence used in those arguments can be indicated.

Looking at the future

The AVERS tool and the hybrid theory on which it is based are important first steps to developing powerful support and visualization tools tailored to a specific task such as crime investigation or legal decision making. On the theoretical side, further interdisciplinary research is necessary to achieve a truly integrated “science of evidence.” On the practical side, further testing and development of support tools are needed. While visualization can ease the interpretation of complex arguments, complex argument visualization can quickly become “boxes-and-arrow-spaghetti.” Depending on the context, a visual or textual representation may be preferred, and any sense-making tool for argumentation should allow for a combination of the two modes of representation.story FB

Floris BexFloris Bex is a research assistant at the Argumentation Research Group of the University of Dundee, working on the Dialectical Argumentation Machines (DAM) project. He has an M.Sc. in Cognitive Artificial Intelligence from Utrecht University. In 2009, he was awarded his Ph.D., for his thesis entitled “Evidence for a Good Story: A Hybrid Theory of Stories, Arguments and Criminal Evidence”, from the University of Groningen (Centre for Law and ICT). His thesis outlines a hybrid theory of reasoning with stories and arguments in the context of criminal evidence.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt.  Managing editor Rob Richards.