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Open justice initiatives seek to make sense of court proceedings

05/04/19

Michael Cross Correspondent

One reason why UK law is so difficult to understand is that much of it exists in the form of court judgments, many dating from past centuries.

Justice statue

Even where these judgments are freely available, such as through the BAILIE online database, interpreting them requires decades of training and experience. (This is why judges in England and Wales are generally older than their continental counterparts, who work with codified statutory laws.) 

A growing crisis in the justice system - including the soaring number of people appearing without legal representation - has inspired a clutch of initiatives aiming to unlock the knowledge in case reports with the help of big data and AI technologies. 

The Incorporated Council of Law Reporting (ICLR) for England and Wales, a not-for-profit body set up in 1865 to publish authorised reports of judgments, last month announced a research initiative to find new ways of tapping an “ocean of insight” in the corpus of law reports. 

Daniel Hoadley, the ICLR's head of research said ‘law tech’ innovation in the UK has fallen behind that in the US, Canada and Australia because data is locked up in historic case reports only understandable by experts. In response, the new ICLR Lab will “provide a focal point for advanced development that stands to benefit ordinary people wherever they seek legal advice”.

The four initial projects are:

  • Blackstone, which will apply AI techniques to enriching unstructured legal text;

  • Friction, which aims to promote open access to case law by analysing and mapping the “judgment supply chain”;

  • Endless Blue, a “conceptual project focused on modelling the connections between the various sources of English law”; and

  • Raconteur, which will investigate ways of making case reports understandable to people appearing in court without the support of a lawyer.  

Potential partners in the initiative will include the courts, universities, barristers, law firms, third sector organisations, technology companies and start-ups, Hoadley said. 

Unrecorded

While the ICLR’s database is authoritative, it covers only the higher courts. The vast majority of proceedings in lower courts and tribunals in England and Wales currently go unrecorded.

A social enterprise set up by a legal aid lawyer is aiming to fill that knowledge gap by creating transcripts of proceedings with voice recognition software.

Barrister Sophie Walker says that technology can help make the workings of the justice system understandable to a far wider audience. However, her business, Just-transcription.com, will first have to win a place on HM Courts & Tribunals Service’s panel of approved suppliers. 

Currently, court transcripts from commercial suppliers cost between £100 and £120 per audio hour. Walker says that automating the process can halve the cost if the transcript is corrected by a human editor or cut it by nine-tenths for a raw version.

“There are lots of hearings where you just want a reminder of what happened rather than every single exact word,” she said. 

Reducing secrecy

Another initiative aims to improve the understanding of new the most secret parts of the justice system, family law.

Educational charity the Nuffield Foundation has announced a data partnership with the Centre for Child and Family Justice Research at Lancaster University and the SAIL Databank at Swansea University. The partnership, funded through a £2.2 million grant from the foundation, will enable analysis of and access to datasets held by Cafcass, the support service for children in family courts, providing much needed information about the characteristics and pathways of children and families through services, and their outcomes.

The Nuffield Family Justice Observatory will also provide training and support for researchers and analysts in the use of data, increasing their capacity to understand, interpret and apply it within the family justice sector. It is working with the Welsh Government Knowledge and Analytics Service and the Administrative Data Research Unit Wales, and has plans to collaborate with the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Education and the Administrative Data Research Partnership. 

These initiatives come as the Ministry of Justice struggles with ways of ensuring that the principle of open justice survives the introduction of online courts through the £1.4 billion justice modernisation programme. 

Image by Captain Roger Fenton, public domain through flickr

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