Beyond Full Text: Towards a Role for Hypermedia in the Law

Autore:Michael Fanning

1. Introduction. 2. Hypertext, Hypermedia and the Law. 3. Legal Documents. 3.1. EC directives: an example of printed legal documents. 3.2. EC directives: an example of digital legal documents. 4. Collections of Legal Documents. 4.1. The Corpus Iuris Civilis: am example of a printed collection. 4.2. The celex databases: an example of a digital collection. 5. Towards a Role for Hypermedia in Law.... (visualizza il riepilogo completo)


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@1. Introduction

At a recent conference in the United Kingdom, a speaker prefaced his talk by cautioning his audience against the perils of predicting the future. He displayed a picture of a bubble car heralded many years ago as the means of transport of the future. He added that to his disappointment he did not spot a bubble car on his way to the conference.

In a previous issue of this journal, Jon Bing [Bing 1992] revealing his passion for science fiction novels makes a similar point. Today's communications are based upon e-mail instead of, as one science firction author predicted, rocket mail or as Bing put it ´r-mailª.

The lesson to be learnt here is clear. Where technology is concerned it is prudent to avoid committing yourself to visions of the future! With such sobering thoughts in mind, I shall tentatively explore a role for hypermedia in the law rather than state one.

The last twenty to thirty years [Nunn-Price 1992] have witnessed a staggering rise in the amount of legal information, mainly case law and statute, available in electronic form. While this is undeniably a tremedous achievement, most law databases are simply electronic versions of the printed original. The format and structure of the databases are largely dictated by the printed form. This leads to a curious state of affairs where product developers are trying to apply hypertext and hypermedia technology to electronic versions of printed texts. Here it will be argued that in order to fully exploit the potential offered by hypermedia we need to look at applying hypertext and hypermedia technology to truly digital documents.

Thus, the essence of the paper is that in order to fully explore the potential application of hypermedia to the law we must examine and, where necessary, re-assess, our understanding of what constitutes,

  1. legal documents, and

  2. collections of legal documents.

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    Following a brief look at the terms ´hypertextª and ´hypermediaª, the paper will explore our understanding of a legal document by looking at European Community directives in some detail. Our understanding of what constitutes- a collection of legal documents will in turn be explored and contrasted with reference to Justinian's Corpus Iuris Civilis and CELEX. Incidentally, C£LEX stands for ´Communitatis Lexª and is officially described- as the ´computerised inter-institutional documentation system for Community lawª1. CELEX is available from the European Commission's own commercial host organisation, eurobases. More simply put, the ce-lex database offers systematic access to Community law, The discussion will then close by suggesting a role for hypermedia in. the law.

    @2. Hypertext, Hypermedia and the Law

    While the basic ideas behind what we now know as hypertext are attributed to vannevar Bush, it was Ted Nelson who coined the actual term [Macaulay 1992, Terret 1994]. It is useful Just to remind ourselves again what Ted Nelson understood as hypertext.

    By Hypertext, I mean non-sequential writing - text that blanches and allows choices to readers, best read at an inter-active screen. As popularly conceived, this is a series of text chunks connected by links which offer the leader different pathways2.

    With the dramatic increase in computing power, primarily text-based applications began to include graphics and later audio and visual data. In time Nelson's ´text ckunksª have become essentially ´data chunksª where the data object may be either text, a graphic, sound edits or a video sequence. Hence with time ´hypertextª grew into ´hypermediaª.

    It is worth noting that some authors, are careful to distinguish between the terms ´hypermediaª and ´multimediaª, stressing the essentially interactive nature of the hypermedia [Terrett 1993, p. 22] and the fact that multimedia ´is not underpinned by the epistemology of hypertextª [Macaulay 1993, p.15].

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    Seen from a commercial point of view the whole Idea of hypertext received a substantial boost when in the late 1980's Apple bundled HyperCard with the mac computer, By the early 1990's the PC world had its own share of hypertext authoring tools such as Folio Views, HyperWriter and Guide [Fersko-Weiss 1991].

    Slowly and surely hypertext features began to appear in many database applications aimed at the legal community. For example, the German legal information producer JURIS GmbH and Context Limited in the United Kingdom, both produced CD-ROMs where the help-screens contained hypertext links. These two developments are in fact a prelude to the inclusion of hypertext links in their respective products3, The Italian Ministry of Justice has also embarked upon a project to cross-refer statute and case law using hypertext links. Applications such as hypertax are now beginning to appear where hypertext links within the application are the substantial sellable strength of the product and not just a feature.

    Bearing in mind some consider ´law is hypertext by natureª [Kr¸ger 1992] it is perhaps a little disappointing that there are not more applications which exploit hypertext. After all, the pursuit of cross-references is said to be more akin to how lawyers work with printed materials. Let us not forget however the time scale here. Not only does the rapid pace and development of computer technology tend to fuel a collective impatience, but also legal database producers have spent the best part of 20 years encouraging and cajoling lawyers into legal information managment practices, involving complicated retrieval languages, distant and abstract collections of documents, all of which remains foreign to most lawyers. Inevitably, it will take a little time to readjust.

    These observations camouflage a very important point, namely that in exploring a role for hypermedia in law it is essential to get behind terms whose understanding is driven largely by technological and commercial developments. To analyse how the technological possibilities help or -hinder the way we use and manage legal information.

    By taking a broader view of hypertext and hypermedia we shall see that there are many applications and products that although not formally recognised as hypertext or hypermedia products, nevertheless display hypertext-and hypermedia-like attributes. One such example is provided by the celex system of databases, which predates the ´hypeª about hypertext by many years.

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    Each document stored on the celex database is attributed an individidual number which is formulated according to a system which we shall look at in more detail later on, The so-called ´celex document numbersª are the basis upon which documents cross-refer to each other. Although current versions of celex require that a document be obtained by entering the document number at the system's command line, the user can nevertheless navigate ´different pathwaysª through ´text-chunksª.

    Similarly, a younger database on the eurobases host offers hypertext-like qualities, info 92 ´is an information system on the completion of the internal market and its social dimensionª4. The database is menu-driven with no possibility - for the moment - of full text searching. If for instance we were to call up the ´Future Eventsª screen we are given a list of EU institutions together with topics the institutions are going to discuss in the near -future. Beside each topic there is a number prefaced with the character ´#ª. By entering this sequence of characters at the command line the user jumps straight to the relevant information held in the database on that topic. The database index and the cross-references to national implementing measures can be used in a similar way.

    The importance of labouring this point is to question the dominant view that the law as a primarily text-based subject is not suitable for hypermedia applications. If one were to look only at what is commercially available as regards hypertext and hypermedia systems, lawyers could indeed, be forgiven for wondering what good it could possibly bring them.

    However if we look at the information management possibilities behind the technology, the potential offered by the technology becomes more apparent, not just for teaching [Killingly 1992] but for speading, exploring and developing the law. Before explaining this point further we need to look at legal documents and collections of legal documents.

    @3. Legal Documents

    What is a legal document? Answers to this question are likely to be various being influenced by such factors as the author's legal background, if any, and the legal system with which they are best acquainted. Some might cite a piece of enacted legislation such as an Act of Parliament, Loi or Gesetz as examples. Others may offer a court decision or cite articlesPage 247 from a Code. Other answers may refer to contracts and so on...

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