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§.1.- Foreword

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

§.2.- Introduction

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

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

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

Basic pattern of a folksonomy

Basic pattern of a folksonomy

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leviathan (Thomas Hobbes)

Leviathan (Thomas Hobbes)

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

 

Gavel

Gavel

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

 

The Castle (Franz Kafka)

The Castle (Franz Kafka)

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

§.6- Conclusion

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

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

 

Federico Costantini

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

 

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

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.

justice2.jpg

This post explores ways in which information technology (IT) can enhance access to justice. What does it mean when we talk about "the access to justice crisis," and how can information technology help to resolve it? The discussion that follows is based on my 2009 book, Technology for Justice: How Information Technology Can Support Judicial Reform, particularly Part 4, on the role of information and IT in access to justice.

The normative framework for access to justice

International conventions guarantee access to a court. Everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing by an independent tribunal in the determination of their civil rights and obligations or of any criminal charge against him or her, according to The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (article 14) and regional conventions like the The European Convention on Human Rights (article 6). In practice, the normative framework for access to justice does not provide us with clearly defined concepts.

The major barriers to access to justice identified in the scholarly literature are:

  • Distance, which can be a factor impeding access to courts. In many countries, courts are concentrated in the main urban centers or in the capital.
  • Language barriers, which are present when justice seekers use a language that is different from the language of the courts.
  • Physical challenges, like impaired sight and hearing and motor and cognitive impairments; these as a barrier to access are an emerging topic in the debate on technology support in courts.

These first three factors are all relatively straightforward and do not strike at the heart of the legal process.

  • Cost, for instance lawyers’ fees, court fees and other components of the price of access to justice, in many forms, has been identified as a factor affecting access to courts. However, cost is extremely hard to research and subject to a lot of ramifications. Because of this complexity, cost will not be discussed directly in this post.
  • Lack of information and knowledge, lack of familiarity with the court process, the complexity of legal and administrative systems, and lack of access to legal information are commonly identified factors (Cotterrell, The Sociology of Law p. 251; Hammergren, Envisioning Reform: Improving Judicial Performance in Latin America, p. 136). They are related because they all refer to the availability of information. They are the starting point for our discussion.

Potentially, information on the Internet can provide some form of solution for these problems, in two ways. First, access to information can support fairer administration of justice by equipping people to respond appropriately when confronted with problems with a potentially legal solution. Access to information can compensate, to some extent, for the disadvantage one-shotters experience in litigation, thereby increasing their chance of obtaining a fair decision. Second, the Internet provides a channel for legal information services, although experience with such online service provision is limited in most judiciaries. The discussion here will therefore focus on access to legal information and knowledge. Lack of information and knowledge as a barrier to access to justice is the focus for discussion in the first few paragraphs. The first step is to identify the barriers.

Knowledge and information barriers to access to justice

What are the information barriers individuals experience when they encounter problems with a potentially legal solution? We need empirical evidence to find an answer to this question, and fortunately some excellent research has been done, which may help us. In the U.K., Hazel Genn led a team that researched what people do and think about going to law. Their 1999 report is called Paths to Justice. A similar exercise led by Ben van Velthoven and Marijke ter Voert in The Netherlands, called Geschilbeslechtingsdelta 2003 (Dispute Resolution Delta 2003), was published in 2004. Although there are some marked differences between them, both studies looked at how people deal with “justiciable problems”: problems that are experienced as serious and have a potentially legal solution. Analysis of empirical evidence of people and their justiciable problems in England and Wales and The Netherlands produced the following findings with regard to these barriers:

  • Inaction in the face of a justiciable problem because of lack of information and knowledge occurs in a small percentage of cases.
  • Unavailability of advice negatively affects dispute resolution outcomes. It lowers the resolution rate. Cases in which people attempted to find advice were resolved with a higher rate of success than those of the self-helpers.
  • Respecting the inability to find advice: If people go looking for advice, the barriers to finding it have more to do with their own competencies, such as confidence, emotional fortitude, and literacy skills, than with the availability of the advice. In the United Kingdom, about 20 percent of the population is so poor at reading and writing that they cannot cope with the demands of modern life, according to data from the National Literacy Trust. In The Netherlands, the percentage of similarly low literacy is estimated at about 10 percent, according to data from the Stichting Lezen en Schrijven, the Reading and Writing Foundation.
  • Respecting incompetence in implementing the information received: Different competence levels will affect what can be done with information and advice. Competencies in implementing the information received include, for example, skills such as working out what the problem is, what result is wanted, and how to find help; simple case-recording skills; managing correspondence; confidence and assertiveness; and negotiating skills, according to research reported by Advicenow in 2005. Some people do not want to be empowered by having information available. They want assistance, or even someone to take over dealing with their problem. People with low levels of competence in terms of education, income, confidence, verbal skill, literacy skill, or emotional fortitude are likely to need some help in resolving justiciable problems.
  • Ignorance about legal rights exists across most social groups. Genn notes that people generally are not educated about their legal rights (Genn p. 102).
  • Respecting lack of confidence in the legal system and the courts and negative feelings about the justice system, Genn observes that people are unwilling voluntarily to become involved with the courts. People associate courts with criminal justice. People’s image of the courts is formed by media stories about high profile criminal cases (Genn p. 247). This issue is related to the public image of courts, as well as to the wider role of courts as setters of norms.

Information needs for resolving justiciable problems

After identifying knowledge and information barriers, the next step is to uncover needs for information and knowledge related to access to justice. Those needs are most strongly related to the type of problem people experience. The most frequently occurring justiciable problems are simple, easy-to-solve problems, mostly those concerning goods and services. People themselves resolve such problems, occasionally with advice from specialist organizations like the consumers’ unions (e.g., in the U.S., the National Consumers League). For more important, more complex problems, people tend to seek expert help more frequently. The most difficult to resolve are problems involving a longer-term relationship, such as labor or family problems. Any of the problems discussed in this section may lead to a court procedure. However, the problems that are the toughest to resolve are also the ones that most frequently come to court.

The first need people experience is for information on how to solve their problem. In The Netherlands, the primary sources for this type of information are specialized organizations, with legal advice providers in second place. In England and Wales, solicitors are the first port of call, followed by the Citizens’ Advice Bureaux. In both countries, the police are a significant source of information on justiciable problems. This is especially remarkable because the problems researched were not criminal justice issues.

If people require legal information, they primarily need straightforward information about rules and regulations. Next, they look for information about ways to settle and handle disputes once they arise. Information about court procedures is a separate category that becomes relevant only in the event people need to go to court.

Respecting taking their case to court: People need information on how to resolve problems, on rights and duties, and on taking a case to court. The justiciable problems that normally come to court tend to be difficult for people themselves to resolve. These problems are also experienced as serious. Many of them involve long-term relationships: family, employment, neighbors. Therefore, people will tend to go looking for advice. Some of them may need assistance. Most people seek and receive some kind of advice before they come to court.

In summary, information needs in this context are mostly problem-specific. Most problems are resolved by people themselves, sometimes with the help of information, or help in the form of advice or assistance. The help is provided by many different organizations, but mostly by specialized organizations or providers of legal aid and alternative dispute resolution (ADR).

Different dispute resolution cultures

There are, besides these general trends, interesting differences between England and Wales and The Netherlands. The results with regard to dispute outcome, for instance, show the following:

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The Netherlands has fewer unresolved disputes, more disputes resolved by agreement, and the rate of resolution by adjudication is half that of England and Wales. It looks as if there is more capacity for resolving justiciable problems in Dutch society than there is in society in England and Wales. Apart from the legacy of the justice system where there is a propensity to settle differences that Voltaire described in one of his letters, many factors may be at work in The Netherlands to produce a higher level of problem-solving capacity. One probable factor is the level of education and the related competence levels for dealing with problems and the legal framework. The functional illiteracy rate is only half that in the United Kingdom. Another factor may be a propensity to settle differences by reducing the complexity of problems through policies and routines.

Diversion or access, empowerment or court improvement?

The debate respecting whether diversion or court improvement should come first as an objective of legal policy, has been going on for some time. These are the options under discussion:

  • Preventing problems and disputes from arising;
  • Equipping as many members of the public as possible to solve problems when they do arise without needing recourse to legal action;
  • Diverting cases away from the courts into private dispute resolution forums; and
  • Enhancing access to legal forums for the resolution of disputes.

Genn argues that it is not an answer to say that diversion and access should be the twin objectives of policy, because they logically conflict. I would like to contribute some observations that could provide a way out of this apparent dilemma.

First, user statistics from the introduction of the online claim service Money Claim Online and the case study in Chapter 2.3 of my book suggest that changes in procedure facilitating access do not in themselves lead to higher caseloads. Changes observed in the caseloads are attributable to market forces in both instances.

The other observation is that Paths to Justice and the Dispute Resolution Delta clearly found that self-help is experienced as more satisfying and less stressful than legal proceedings. Moreover, resolutions are to a large degree problem specific. A way out of the dilemma could be that specialist organizations that make it their business to provide specific information, advice, and assistance, should enhance their role. There is an empirical basis for this way out in the research reported in Paths to Justice and the Dispute Resolution Delta. Although goods and services problems are largely resolved through self-help, out-of-court settlement, or ADR, nonetheless a fair number of them still come to court. Devising ways to assist individuals in informal problem solving and diverting them to other dispute resolution mechanisms can keep still more of these problems out of court. Even in matters for which a court decision is compulsory, like divorce, mediation mechanisms can sort out differences before the case is filed. Clearly, information on the Internet will provide an entry point for all of these dispute resolution services. Online information can thus help to keep as many problems out of court as possible. All this should not keep us from making going to court when necessary less stressful. Information can help reduce people’s stress, even as it improves their chances of achieving justice. The Internet can be a vehicle for this kind of information service, too.

Taking up this point, the next section focuses on courts and how information technology, particularly the Internet, can support them in their role of information providers to improve access to justice. Two strains concerning the role of information in access to justice run through this theme: information to keep disputes out of court, and information on taking disputes to court.

Information to keep disputes out of court

An almost implicit understanding in the research literature is that parties with information on the “rules of thumb” of how courts deal with types of disputes will settle their differences more easily and keep them out of court. Such information supports settlement in the shadow of the law. Most of this type of settlement will be done with the support of legal or specialist organizations. In the pre-litigation stage, information about the approaches judges and courts generally take to specific types of problems can help the informal resolution of those problems. This will require that information about the way courts deal with those types of problems becomes available. Some of the ways in which courts deal with specific issues are laid down in policies. Moreover, judicial decision making is sometimes assisted by decision support systems reflecting policies. In order to help out-of-court settlement, policies and decision support systems need to be available publicly.

Information on taking disputes to court

If a dispute needs to come to court, information can reduce the disadvantage one-shotters have in dealing with the court and with legal issues. This disadvantage of the one-shotters -- those who come to court only occasionally -- over against the repeat players who use courts as a matter of business, was enunciated by Marc Galanter in his classic 1974 article, Why the Haves Come Out Ahead: Speculations on the Limits of Legal Change. Access to information for individual, self-represented litigants increases their chances of obtaining just and fair decisions. Litigants need information on how to take their case to court. This information needs to be legally correct, as well as effective. By "effective," I mean that the general public can understand the information, and that someone after reading it will (1) know what to do next, and (2) be confident that this action will yield the desired result. In a case study, I have rated several court-related Web sites in the U.K. and in The Netherlands on those points, and found most of them wanting. My test was done in 2008, and most of the sites have since changed or been replaced. And although the U.K. Court Service leaflet D 184 on how to get a divorce got the best score, my favorite Web site is Advicenow.

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Such an information service requires a proactive, demand-oriented attitude from courts and judiciaries. Multi-channel information services, such as a letter from the court with reference to information on the court’s or judiciary’s Web site, can meet people’s information needs.

Beyond information push

Other forms of IT, increasingly interactive, can provide access to court. [Editor's note: Document assembly systems for self-represented litigants are a notable example.] Not all of them require full-scale implementation of electronic case management and electronic files. In order to be effective for everyone, the information services discussed will require human help backup. There are also technologies to provide this, but they may still not be sufficient for everyone. The information services discussed here, in order to be effective, will need to be provided by a central agency for the entire legal system. A final finding is the importance of public trust in the courts in order for individuals to achieve access to justice. Judiciaries can actively contribute to improved access to justice in this field by ensuring that correct information about their processes is furnished to the public.

In summary, access to justice can be effectively improved with IT services. Such services can help to ameliorate the access-to-justice crisis by keeping disputes out of court. The information services identified here should serve the purpose of getting justice done. They should not keep people from getting the justice they deserve by preventing them from taking a justified concern to court. If people need to go to court, information services can help them deal with the courts more effectively.

[Editor's Note: A very useful list of resources about applying technology to access to justice appears at the technola blog.]

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Dory Reiling, mag. iur. Ph.D., is a judge in the first instance court in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. She was the first information manager for The Netherlands' Judiciary, and a senior judicial reform expert at The World Bank. She is currently on the editorial board of The Hague Journal on the Rule of Law and on the Board of Governors of The Netherlands' Judiciary’s Web site Rechtspraak.nl. She has a Weblog in Dutch, and an occasional Weblog in English, and can be followed on Twitter at @doryontour.

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