A United Kingdom Approach to Legal Information: thè status Project

Autore:N. H. Ninn-Price

1. Some Basic Conce pis. - 2. The United Kingdom Legai Environment. Origins of thè STATUS approach. - 3. Preparation of thè Source Text, - 4. The Components of thè System;' 4.1. Construction of thè data base; 4.2, The searching component. - 5. Ouiline Descriptlott of STATUS n; 5.1. The Command Language; 5.2, Text structure of thè input text; 5.3. The structure of thè data base; 5.4. Atnending thè ... (visualizza il riepilogo completo)


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@1 Some Basic .Concepts

Ali organised societies operate within thè framework of a legai System. Any such System will reflect thè chatacteristics of thè particular society from which it grew, so it is essentlally natlooal In character. Àny computer system designed to work in a legai environment will have to take into account thè national fiavour? thè nuances of thè legai system.

In a review of legai computer systems developed in Europe, two main types of system can be seen to ha ve emerged. In thè countries of southern Europe, where thè law is codified» and where there is doctrine» thè emphasis has been on systems that handle structured information stored in ciassified fields, often-' using a specified vocabulary of keywords. Much of thè analysis required is done intellectually before entry into thè ' computer, and this approach has been supported by thè design of thesaurus-type aids to searching. '

Norman Price has been involved in legai information retrieval sirice 1968 whemt with

Professar Bryam Niblett, he started thè STATUS Project, He has been a member of thè Council of Europe Committee on Legai Data Processimi and is currently aifached to thè European Commission in Brussels where he is thè Project Leader fot thè Technkd Study in Legai Information Retrieval,

This paper discusses some of thè reasons which bave led to thè developtnent in thè United Kingdom» of full text retrlevtl systems In thè field of legai information rather than systems operating on prevlously tnalysed Information. À description of thè STATUS system Is givee and attention is drawn to thè need to design systems that can work with a mixture of integrai text and structured materlal.Page 106

In contrast, in northern 'Europe (particularly thè United Kingdom), thèlaw is- heavily based on Case Law, or Common Law, in which thè meaning of a sta tu te is tested by argument in court» and where there is little or no codificaticiI. This has led to thè development of computer systems that operate on thè full text of Statutes or Cases. The emphasis has been on facilities for searching, using words and phrases in naturai language-,' to retrieve thè originai text of thè legai documents required, This is radically different in approach fronr that of stfuctured information, and has been slower to develop because of thè complexity of thè programs and thè cost of preparing thè full- text in machine-readable form; and thè further cost of thè disk Storage needed. These costs have diminished considerably in recent years, so this type of System has become more economie ? and a number of systems are in operation. This paper will, in passing, describe one such System - thè STATUS System - in com-menting on thè characteristics of these systems»

What is now of. great interest is that thè advent of international legislation, especially by thè E.E.C, in Brussels, has imposed a need for thè two approaches - that of struetured informa tion, and that of full text - to meet on common ground, Out of this fusion thè next genera tion of retrieval systems will arise, for it is clearly necessary to develop techniques that will deal fluently with ieformation which is a mixture of. free. text and struetured fields.

@2. The United Kingdom Legal Ewironment. Origins of thè status approach

It is useful to consider thè United Kingdom legai environment as a document-centred System» since some form.of printed text is thè start, thè continuation, and thè final outeome of any legai process. It is much more than that, of course» for' it must never be forgotten that people are deeply involved; but for our purpose it is convenient to consider thè British legai System, as one based on words contained in documents. There are many different opinions on thè fairness, effectiveness or efficiency of thè U.K. legai System, but there is one point on which there is total agreement: that there is an enormous quantity of legai data now existing» which is growing rapidly in both size and complexity so that it threatens to enguif professional practitioner and kyman alike in a remorseless tide - of paper. Traditiontl methods used for thè organisation and disseminatloe of legai Information have reached their limit, aed new techniques are urgently - needed, Fortunately, jhe stored program computer has come aiong at thè right time to provide a solution.

It was in this context that STATUS began, in order to apply computer techniques to thè Storage, analysis aed retrievai of legai information,Page 107 with particular emphasis on Statutes enacted at Westminster. The acronym STATUS is derived from STATUte Scardi. Work on thè project began in late 1967 with a- feasibility stedy which gave a favourable opinion on thè pò tentiti application of computer techniques in this fidici. Initlally, thè project was simply t research topic, -but as time progressed working solutions became practical-reality. From thè beginning, opinion was sought from legai practitioners, and thè current System owes much to thè feed-back of ideas' and comment from thè end users, This is essentlal in any System that is intended- to operate in real life. Early in thè life of STATUS, four design decisions were 'made which determined thè course of thè project and outlined thè philosophy to be followed. These four decisions were:

i) That thè computer programs should be written in a high-level language in order that thè System should be madrine independent as far as possibie» and certainly so that thè logic and low of thè programs could be well understood. The communication of ideas was part of thè approach adopted. Several languages were tried, but thè System inevitably settled for ÀNSI Fortran IV. - not .because it is thè most suitable» but because tnost computer installations can accept Fortran, and. portability of thè system was regarded as a major objective. There are currently working versions of thè STATUS system on IBM? ICL, Honeywell, DEC, Rank Xerox and CTL machines.

ii) That thè full-text of legai documents should be processed so that thè' lawyer would be sure of access to thè originai source document, and not to a' précis or an abstract. Information changes in value with time, and no one summarising a legai document can possibly anticipate how a particular piece of legislation will-be used and interpreted in future. in) That thè essence of thè- problem was how to get a good answer from a bad question. The solution was to work on thè question, successively refining it until thè ..right question has been formed, and thè correct information retrieved. The best way of doing this is to carry out a ditlogue with thè database, to interrogate it by searching interactively. iv) That thè system should be simple to use, so that any reasonably competent person, unskilled in computing, would be able to operate it, Commands, instructions and questions should be in words and phrases in naturai language. The computer terminal should be as etsy to use as ae electric typewriter: in short, thè system should suit thè user. . ,

These four critern htve stood thè test of time, and stili exert considerale influence 'on thè current version of STATUS, One additional factor has been added to thè above list, and that is thè ability to amend and update thè databases dynamically: that is, interactively from thè. terminal. while thè system is operating normally. This-ensures that thè data stored is kept fresh and up to date.Page 108

@3. Preparation of the source

The stàrting point of any full-text system is thè preparaticiI of thè text in computer readable form, This apparently mundane task is expensive and time-consumieg, but is of vi tal importance silice thè ultimate System will be judged on thè quality of thc text retrieved. Àccuracy is at a premium. STATUS has accepted data prepared by a wide variety of methods, including punched cards, key to disk or magnetic tape, optical character recognitloo, and - more recently -...

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