The weird world of computers and law

Surely computer programming and law are totally different, right?

I studied Law for undergraduate, but I learned to program and I recently perked onto the growing field of legal informatics. A lot of people think it is strange that I studied both Law and Computers. But, it is a growing area of interest, and it is has been for a long time. At least for 300 years or more, according to Stephen Wolfram. And, as far as I can tell, Law and Programming are very similar. They both use a system of logical rules to define a problem space. But whilst computer programs are normally written to produce very exact answers, legal problems often do not yet have a certain answer.

Is it coming?
The end of lawyers?

Describe the legal informatics paradox

Shortly put, legal informatics combines computer science and legal theory. It has been around for a long time. And there is a trend, though I don’t know how popular, to call Law ‘legal science’. But, legal systems are very different from scientific systems. Legal thought and scientific thought are quite separate. If you go to Law School, and you’d learn about qualitative principles like ‘justice’ or ‘fairness’ or ‘certainty’ that animate the Law (if you are lucky). Lawyers tend to use these hard-to-define, abstract concepts, to build their argument, and then they try to prove a series of value judgments about when one principle, such as fairness, might be sacrificed for another principle, such as certainty.

If you know how computer programs work, then there isn’t a clear way they can apply to problems within the legal domain. Computers are really good at things like counting, 1+2=3. These problems are so certain to define and easy to represent in a mechanical sense. Which we can then solve with an algorithm.  Most computer languages would be totally useless for dealing with legal problems. 

Really quick example of how all legal thought operates

Just a quick, stupid and inaccurate example to make my meaning clearer. If you are a local council (LC) and you buy thousands of faulty wheelie bins from Useless Bin Maker Ltd (UBM), and the manufacturing error only emerges eight years later, the Law provides for a general rule requiring the Council to seek damages within 6 years of the date the bins were delivered. It would benefit the LC if there was no limitation period at all. (Their lawyer might argue this is ‘fairer’.) But, this would disadvantage UBM. (Their lawyer might argue this promotes ‘certainty’.) As it stands, because this is a latent defective, LC can make a claim within 3 years of discovering the manufacturing fault, up to a maximum of 15 years thanks to the Latent Damage Act 1986 that modifies the standard position under the Limitation Act 1980. Here is a more detailed article explaining the limitation rules for contracts in England.

Legal thought is all about modifying and augmenting the rules of the system in response to new facts that call for a slightly different compromise between the motivating principles. It is a ‘normative’ exercise. Normative, according to Wikipedia, means “relating to an ideal standard or model, or being based on the normal or correct way of doing something“.

Future posts

In some future posts, I’ll begin to talk about how people are trying to solve this legal informatics paradox, as Computer Scientists and programmers try to marry Law and Computation.