Computer Aid Projects in England (1971)

April 30, 1998

Computer Aid Projects in England

As yet the practising lawyer in England receives no assistance from computer-based systems, other than with his accounts for which computer accounting systems are available although, as yet, not widely used. Such systems, however, are not designed to assist the lawyer in his legal work and none of the projects that have been carried out with this aim have as yet made the transition from a research project to a commercial proposition. These projects can be classified under two headings:

(1) The use of computers for the storing and retrieval of legal information – this refers to projects enabling searches for the relevant information itself, particularly the authoritative pronouncement of Statutes and decided cases, and is wider than the preparation by computer of legal bibliographies.

(2) The use of computers in document production.

The former assists the lawyer in his primary task of ascertaining the law and it is in this field that most research has been done. The latter use does not alter the lawyers role as such but is designed to increase their administrative efficiency.

As regards legal information retrieval, both the “full text method”, which is based on the theory that the relevance of a document can be gauged by the presence or absence of chosen “key” words and therefore requires that the complete text of the legal material (or the complete text except for the common words such as “a”, “and”, “the”) be stored in the computer system, and the “automated index” method have been investigated. The former has been shown to work well for statutory material. A research project headed by Dr. G B F Niblett of The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority has produced a system for storing and successfully searching all the English Law relevant to atomic energy which is, of course, entirely Statutory in origin, including programmes for both off-line and on-line searching. A report on this project entitled “The Status Project. Searching Atomic Energy Law By Computer” by G B F Niblett and N H Price is available from H M Stationary Office, is the most recent publication in this field and gives references to previous papers on the subject.

The complete text of all the law relevant to atomic energy amounts to just under 140,000 words and obviously any system of practical use to the practising lawyer would need to be many times larger. There is no project in England to match the size of the system of Aspen System Corporation developed by John F. Horty in the United States.

The “full text” method has also been applied to case-law material by Colin Tapper at the London School of Economics and later at Magdalen College, Oxford and to International Law material by D. J. Harris and Dr. A. K. Kent at the University of Nottingham. The latter project was forced to a standstill by lack of finance, and Mr. Tapper has now gone to America to continue his researches. Mr. Tapper produced what is apparently a fairly brief report for the Department of Education and Science, from whom he was receiving a grant, but this, to our knowledge, has not been published.

Case-law is, however, much less susceptible to full text retrieval not only because of the greater number of words used but also because the language used in English Judgments consists in a substantial part of metaphors and other literary subtleties which the computer cannot appreciate, together with judicial asides and analogies. These may contain words which will be used as “Key” words in searching, which will therefore throw up irrelevant material. In the Civil Law Countries, such as France, the form in which Judgments are given circumvent this problem but their case-law is not such a rich source of legal authority. While full text searching of case-law should produce relevant obiter dicta it would seem that the results of searching case-law are of necessity going to be less precise and consistent than the results obtained using statutory material.

International Data Highways Ltd. a subsidiary of I P C, is at present working on a system for retrieval of case-law using the “automated index”. This will, of course, suffer from the inherent defects of the manually prepared index. Its advantages are that the use of a computer should enable quicker and more efficient searching of an index containing a greater number of more detailed subject headings. International Data Highways must be favourites to produce the first commercial system for the assistance of lawyers in England.

There are many practical problems that have been raised but not, as far as it is known, solved. These include the problems of keeping the law, as recorded, upto date and providing facilities for solving “old” cases i.e. cases in which relevant law is not that applicable to matters arising currently.

With reference to Computer Documentation, little seems to have been done. Messrs Needham & James, a firm of Solicitors in Birmingham, are at present experimenting with the use of a computer system in producing wills. Details of their work are not yet known, but the principles of document production would seem to be as follows:

The first step is to analyse what formalities the law requires in regards to the particular document in hand e.g. a will requires to be witnessed in a certain way, the law makes it usually desirable to appoint an executor etc., and also what information the lawyer gathers in drafting the document. The computer system must provide facilities for obtaining non-standard information e.g. by displaying question on television screen and receiving the answer from an electronic typewriter connected to the computer. The programme must instruct the computer to print-out the standard clauses after stopping to ascertain non-standard information such as names, addresses and descriptions, and the non-standard clauses e.g. the bequests or devises of individual testators. The programme must allow for selective questioning i.e. if it is ascertained that a testator has no real property then there is no point in the computer going on to ask the questions that would enable the printing of a clause that would dispose of real property.

It would seem that conveyancing would be a fruitful field for research into computer documentation but, as far as is known, no practical work has yet been done. The Land Registry is engaged on a systems study with the objective of producing a system for recording details of land titles by the mid-seventies, but this system, while indireclty helping the practising lawyer will not help him in producing his documents. For example leases would seem a suitable subject for research. Leases are produced in a fairly standard format made up from a number of clauses, each of which is fairly standard in wording. This is particularly true of leases produced by a given Solicitor or for a given Lessor. A lease consists of the following Parts:

(i) The date

(ii) The parties

(iii) Very occasionally, the recitals

(iv) The Testatum

(v) The Habendum

(vi) The Reddendum

(vii) The Landlords expressed covenants

(viii) The Tenants express covenants

(ix) The re-entry or forfeiture clause and any other proviso.

Prts 1-6 will be fairly standard in wording but will contain the variable details of each case. They are therefore eminently suitable for drafting by means of a system similar to that outlined above in relation to wills. The remaining parts consist mainly of a choice of various standard clauses under a score or more typical headings e.g. covenants to repair, to insure, against alienation, not to alter etc. The text of the alternative clauses for each type of covenant could be stored in the computer system and the appropriate clauses included in the following way. The screen could display the question, “do you wish to include a repairing covenant?” if the answer was “No” the computer would move on to the next type of covenant. If the answer was “Yes” the text of the standard clauses would be displayed on the screen with the question, “are any of these required?” If one is suitable, as will usually be the case, then the number of the appropriate clause would be typed in. If none is suitable then the full clause required could be typed in.

A further possible use of the computer is in facilitating legislation by textual amendment. No practical steps towards doing this have been taken in England, but we think it deserves a mention and it is closely related to the projects described in 1 above. The whole idea is the sum of three associated ideas.

The first proposal is that, as a Bill passing through Parliament is reprinted frequently in only slightly amended form so that each print has a very short life and a very small circulation, it might be convenient for the Bill to be printed by computer. The aesthetic appeal of a computer print-out is not great but the amended copy can be produced quickly and, most important of all, once the text of the Bill in its original state has been recorded, amendments are very easy to make: the amendments alone have to typed out as input to amend the magnetic tape. This idea as an aim in itself has no merit unless the cost of producing computer copies of the Bill and a printed version of the Act would be less than existing costs. In Manitoba, Canada where the University was allowed to do a pilot project on the Condominium Bill for the State legislature it was found that computer cost would probably be no greater than printing costs. However, it seems that printing services in Manitoba are much more expensive and difficult to obtain than in England, and it is generally thought here that Bill-production by computer would not be an economic proposition.

However, the second idea is that the final tape used in the printing of the Bill is in a form which could be used in the projects outlined in 1 above. This would overcome, as regards new legislation at least, one of the main hindrances to setting up legal information retrieval systems, the slow, costly preparation stage.

The third idea is that, after the Act has been passed, the final tape used in the printing of the Bill should be kept. When it is proposed to amend the Act in question a print incorporating the amendments in the text could be obtained in the same way as an updated copy of the original Bill was produced. This could then be used as a Bill. The Act itself could be produced in this way, to avoid the cost of printing a new, long Act in order only to incorporate a few minor amendments. It seems likely that many MP’s would not approve of the resulting new look of statutes. However, in Manitoba no member of the legislature commented when the Condominium Bill in its revolutionary form was introduced and its lay-out explained.

As well as facilitating this system of legislation by textual amendment, the computer could allow grouping related statutes into a composite enactment. In this way lawyers would not only be relieved of the necessity to ‘cross-read’ several statues to find the law, but would also benefit form the reduction of the total number in which they might need to look.