Making the Case for Expediting Legal Disputes with Computational Law

March 2015
Topics: Law Enforcement, Law, Informatics, Artificial Intelligence, Decision Support Systems
A new field of law is emerging based on automated legal reasoning that may provide an efficient and cost-effective way to relieve clogged court dockets and administrative backlogs. MITRE is partnering with two top law schools to explore its applications.

Could a computer one day rule on whether or not you've broken the law? Absolutely, says a group of law school academics and industry technologists examining the topic.

Take the case of a traffic violation. In the future, your car may be equipped with technology that analyzes driving conditions (traffic, road surface, weather) in real time to determine the most appropriate speed limit in any situation. Such a car would alert you—the driver—to the recommended limit. However, it would also report you if you flagrantly disregarded its suggestion. Exceed the recommended limit by 10 miles per hour or more, and the next text you receive might be a traffic ticket.

Making such a scenario a reality would require an entirely new field of law. Termed "computational law," this futuristic area of jurisprudence refers to the automation or semi-automation of some form of legal reasoning, whether that be rule based, data driven, or both. The speeding ticket example aside, computational law is not envisioned as a way to keep people in line. Its main purpose would be to provide automated legal analysis in situations where multiple administrative layers are the norm, such as building codes, regulatory proceedings and other administrative and legal matters.

Computational law is being pioneered by a few forward thinkers, such as Stanford University Law School, Michigan State University College of Law, and MITRE's Judiciary Engineering and Modernization Center FFRDC, which is sponsored by the Federal Judiciary. The three entities have formed a partnership to explore the field.

Law Schools and MITRE Explore New Legal Territory

Computational law might help alleviate clogged court dockets and address backlogs at administrative agencies where automated legal reasoning could rapidly resolve simple cases. Any executive agency with an administrative law process potentially could see significant improvements in both efficiency and cost.

"This is not like we're opening the door to Judge Dredd,” says MITRE's Brad Brown, portfolio director for the Center for Judicial Informatics, Science & Technology, which is an arm of JEMC. He's referring to the comic-book character whose power to summarily arrest, convict, sentence, and execute criminals is often equated with a police state. "This is about providing a speedy, cost-effective, and fair remedy to people who might otherwise have to wait years for a resolution, given the glut of cases swamping our judicial systems. Any such adjudication would have human oversight."

In the spring of 2014, Brown and Chuck Horowitz, manager of innovation for JEMC, began working with law professors at CodeX, Stanford's Center for Legal Informatics. They were among about 20 global experts asked to participate in a CodeX workshop on the most pressing technical issues in computational law. MITRE is now hosting the follow-on working group collaborations on Handshake, our own social networking tool. Michigan State came on board in November 2014.

"The age of computational law is just beginning," says Daniel Katz, associate professor of law at Michigan State and an affiliated faculty member at CodeX. "The Internet of Things may end up connecting 50 billion things by 2020. Computational law is in some ways a logical extension of this unstoppable market trend.

"Brad and I can imagine a future in which computational law is not only part of a service offering, but it's also embedded in many of these connected products."

A Resolution Platform with a "Fairness" Engine

One early example of online adjudication is Modria, a dispute resolution platform that has helped eBay and PayPal settle more than 60 million cases a year. Modria's resolution system includes modules for diagnosis, negotiation, mediation, and arbitration with a "fairness engine" that delivers fast and fair outcomes. Its website promises intelligent resolutions that eliminate "endless meetings, complicated integration, and overblown budgets." The Ohio Board of Tax Appeals is an early example of a government agency that's adopting the product, which shows the growing possibilities for such systems.

Brown and Katz point to Modria as a good example of a modern law infrastructure. But they also say the real test going forward will be how comfortable people are about trusting more personal disputes to the Internet. "It's one thing for someone to resolve a dispute about failing to claim and pay for a product that they won on eBay," Katz says. "It's something entirely different to think of people working out their divorce settlements online. However, there's a lot of room in the middle for this type of approach to be incredibly useful."

Computational law could also have broad implications globally, particularly in countries without the financial resources to build physical infrastructures capable of handling their caseloads. (To learn about another aspect of MITRE's support to the global judicial community, see "MITRE Introduces a Model for Mapping More Efficient Courts.")

Brown envisions all sorts of future scenarios: "What if resolving simple traffic violations involved a session that occurred in a kiosk with the holograph of a judge backed by an automated legal reasoning machine? Imagine how interesting that could be!"

—by Twig Mowatt


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