For the past five years, the international project COHUBICOL (Counting as a Human Being in the Era of Computational Law), led by VUB professor Mireille Hildebrandt, has focused on ‘legal tech’ and its integration into legal practice. It is a collaboration between lawyers at VUB and computer scientists at Radboud University, where Hildebrandt holds a chair in the department of computer science. Legal tech (legal technologies) refers to advanced computing systems, such as programming languages and machine learning, that are meant to serve legal practice. By now, many software packages are available and many companies (mainly in the US) are offering such services.
In line with the current AI hype, myriad benefits are claimed: legal tech could supposedly automate much of the routine work (e.g. drafting of laws and business contracts, decision-making on social security services, taxes, etc.). At the macro level, legal research requires ploughing through thousands or even millions of documents. "Digitalisation (turning legal documents into pdfs) will not help much here, as you cannot read all the relevant PDFs in detail. You need something much more powerful, a system that synthesises those documents in a meaningful way," says Hildebrandt, project leader, professor of 'Interfacing Law and Technology' at the VUB and featured in 50 women in robotics 2023. "However, such automation easily creates many problems and risks. As a computer scientist, you can attempt to put all laws and case law into an algorithm, but that will lead to ‘scaling the past while freezing the future’."
Moreover, the law varies depending on jurisdiction, so most legal tech cannot be applied just anywhere. The team around COHUBICOL, composed of lawyers and computer scientists, therefore took a close look at a wide selection of legal tech. One of the most important results was a Typology of Legal Technologies (an evaluation method based on a large number of legal techs) in which 30 typical applications, datasets and scientific publications were examined from both a legal and a computer science perspective. Key questions they answered were: What functionality is offered and can the technology in question deliver on that? When applying a specific type of technology in this kind of domain, what could go right or wrong? How does the use of technology in legal practice relate to the rule of law, both now and in the long run? "These are important questions that lawyers should address," says Mireille Hildebrandt. "In any case, this kind of technology will play an increasingly important role in all kinds of aspects related to law and justice."
So it is important that lawyers and computer scientists meet and learn how to interact with each other, to answer the question of whether and if so how to build these systems. "We want to make sure that they do not erode the safeguards of the Rule of Law," Hildebrandt adds. This Fall the project organises the second international Conference on the subject, together with the new Journal for Cross-Disciplinary Research in Computational Law (CRCL), in Brussels on 20 and 21 November. Leading thinkers from the field of AI and law will discuss the future of AI and law and the future of legal method. The project is funded by an Advanced Grant from the European Research Council.
Mireille Hildebrandt: [email protected] +32-2-6292461