August 31, 2001


I blame the weather – it rained on our barbeque. Or perhaps it’s the fact that the nights are drawing in. Whatever the reason, the arrival of the following innocent, nay positive, press release produced a negative reaction.

LSSA Developing XML Component List

The scope a legal XML standard is enormous, potentially covering such diverse areas as interfaces between legal firms and their corporate clients, the courts, government departments and each other. It can also provide the glue to integrate internal systems.

At the recent LSSA XML working party meeting, it was therefore agreed to develop a set of standard XML schema components. The component list includes schemas for external parties, basic case information, time transactions, disbursements and legal bills.

These components will then be used to build specific application XML schema, eg to interface insurance company panels. Such a standard would enable an insurance company to use a single interface to interact directly with all their panel solicitors case and practice management systems. Conversely the legal firm only has to maintain a single interface to interact with many insurance clients. The adoption of such a standard obviously brings huge savings in time and effort for the insurance company, the solicitor and legal systems developer.

The initial component list is scheduled for completion by the end of October and will be published on the LSSA website www.lssa.co.uk for public discussion.

The “Hoobloodyray” reaction was, I admit, unfair – or at least slightly unfair. The fact that the LSSA is at last moving on this is to be applauded. The fact that considerable talent has been assembled to focus on the issue promises a flow of interesting ideas. And while I might uncharitably have thought “About time”, one does not have to look far to find organisations which make the LSSA look like a hare to their tortoise. But the negative thoughts would not roll away. The problem was twofold.

First the example worried me, and particularly the words “The adoption of such a standard obviously brings huge savings in time and effort for the insurance company, the solicitor and legal systems developer.” (emphasis added). Surely there was a potential beneficiary or two missing.

What is XML
XML (eXtensible mark-up Language) is a form of mark-up language which is less complicated than SGML and more widely useable than HTML. It is designed to facilitate the electronic data exchange.
It allows users to mark-up data content using tags similar to those used to create a database. By using it, you can separate the mark-up of the content, the format and the logical organisation of the information. Its virtue lies in the fact that it is extensible, non-proprietary and capable of being used by any individual or organisation regardless of software or hardware. It is sometimes referred to as a meta-language (mainly by people trying to cause even more confusion) because content and format are separated, the content can be published on paper, as a Web page or as a database file by feeding it into the relevant template.
XML works effectively only in conjunction with DTDs (Document Type Definitions) or XML Schema. These can be embedded within the XML document or held separately and define which elements the XML document contains, what the relationship is between each element and the attributes of the element.

And then the make-up of the working party worried me. Now I am not fool enough to think that two striking facts, namely that the organisation is devoted to the interests of legal software suppliers and that the working party on this subject is made up entirely of legal software suppliers, means that the component list development would be deliberately skewed in the interests of legal software suppliers. We are talking about highly intelligent men who see both a commercial benefit from XML, and a social advance from it. What’s more, judging from the conversations I have had with a couple of them, they know more about the realities of present-day practice than I do, and they have the means for considered consultation with practitioners through user groups and many less formal contacts. So I am in no doubt that their intention is to produce standard schema components and the like which benefit their potential customers and I do not doubt that they have realised that any scheme has to be acceptable to the courts for it to work. But working parties are mini-politics; competing interests and energies coalesce and, if things go well, produce something better than could have been produced by any one single member. But for even mini-politics to work effectively, there has to be adequate representation. The best intentions to take account of the interests of those not represented will be defeated because there will come a point where the nature of those interests are assessed, and that assessment will be incomplete.

So my jaundiced plea to the LSSA rather outweighs my genuine welcome to their XML working party’s latest development. Please widen the scope of your aims to include more than the savings you identify – consider the benefits to the taxpayer, the litigant, the courts and even (the most important and often neglected “customer” of the justice system) justice herself. And look at co-operating with others now rather than after you have devoted hours of work (perhaps reinventing the wheel) to this topic. I certainly would not advocate the establishment of a special body for this one purpose; the format of the (largely US-dominated) organisation Legal XML (a non-profit corporation composed of international volunteer members from private industry, non-profit organisations, government, and academia) is admirable but it seems to have spent most of its three years of existence sorting out its structure rather than doing the job. (Legal XML Australia seems to have worked more quickly, no doubt benefiting from the groundwork done in the USA.) SCL is the obvious body for co-ordinating moves on this front (as the response to Modernising the Civil Courts points out) and facilitating co-operation where co-ordination is impracticable. But this is an area where it may soon have to make itself a good deal more obvious.

What is Legal XML
Legal XML is both a language and an organisation. It is not truly a separate language from XML. The major attraction of XML is its potential for universality but if conflicting meta-data is adopted in separate fields (whether in different jurisdictions or in different fields of commerce) exchange will be hindered or warped. The idea behind the development of Legal XML is that those conflicts will be minimised.
As for the organisation, the following extract is taken from its Web site.
The mission of Legal XML is to develop open, non-proprietary technical standards for legal documents using XML and related technologies. Legal XML has both a theoretical and practical scope. Theoretically, every electronic document that can be categorized as is within the scope of Legal XML. Practically, however, it would be impossible to describe all legal documents in XML all at once or even in a short time. Further, there must be a balance between creating technically competent and extensible standards and meeting short-term market demands. The development process must be modest and iterative. As a result, there is a practical limit to Legal XML’s scope. Theoretically, the Legal XML can be divided . Among other things, Legal XML seeks to harmonize and coordinate the various horizontal and vertical subdomains within the larger legal community. Practically, Legal XML scope is determined pragmatically. If there is a group of individuals willing to work to develop legal XML in any particular subdomain, then that subdomain is within the practical scope of Legal XML. That is, if a group of people exist who are willing to do the work that falls within Legal XML’s theoretical scope, then Legal XML will help to facilitate and support the work.

Marketing the Free

I was heartened to see that the 3rd AustLII Conference on Computerisation of Law via the Internet is to be held in Sydney on 28-30 November. It’s nice to see an Aussie success that does not bring out the need to slap my (battered) cardboard cut-out of Shane Warne. The last two years have seen a real growth in free access to law via the Net and AustLII can rightfully claim credit for much of the development. But the suggestions for topics in the call for papers did not include anything on the one chink in the armoury that worries me.

Since I cannot see me turning this one point into an academically respectable paper (although I could pad it out spectacularly if a free ticket to Sydney was on offer), here goes. The assumption among the cognoscenti, and legal information professionals in particular, is that the existence of free access will create a market: it’s a good service and it’s free, so people are bound to use it. Word-of-mouth is said to be the very best form of advertising and surely everybody knows about, for example, BAILII. Wrong!

Many lawyers remain ignorant of the services available for free and are rapidly becoming tied to one or other of the mega-services offered by the mega-publishers. Outside the legal profession, ignorance is in command. The major legal publishers are not daft (at least not all the time) and have not been slow to extend and promote their free services which are accessible via the Internet. They do so partly to compete with each other and partly to keep the threat of free access services at bay. But their long-term commitment to free access services is not to be trusted. It is a marketing ploy aimed at producing a generation of lawyers whose Internet research skills are limited to the use of the proprietary product. If the legal community does not make full use of the genuine free access services then that lack of use will be exploited to undermine the case for expansion and improvement in those services – most obviously, in the UK context, the addition of the Statute Law Database. In the absence of such expansion and improvement, the long-term cost savings and social advantages which free access services can provide will not be achieved.

There is therefore a need for an effective marketing drive to run hand-in-hand with the technical development of free access services and all those responsible for such services need to think about how they are going to “sell’ their free gifts. They may need to recruit marketing expertise along with the technical expertise. SCL members can help by trumpeting the virtues of the services as they exist and by querying the absence of neutral citations wherever they are missing from material published on the Internet.