Traditionally, legal researchers work with large amounts of data on paper. However, as methods for data analytics have evolved in recent years, new opportunities have opened up for legal research. New and unexpected insights may emerge from analyzing large amounts of legal data through data analytics.
The possibilities and challenges of these new methods were discussed during the Research Lab Legal Data Science, which was organized by Simone van der Hof and Carel Smith from eLaw, in collaboration with the Leiden Centre of Data Science. ‘In our field, the use of data analytics is still in its infancy’, says Van der Hof, ‘Our goal is to show our colleagues what is possible in this area, and to hear their questions and ideas about these new methods.’
In the first presentation, Bart Custers (head of research at eLaw) pointed out that legal research can benefit from data science in many ways. The use of data analytics may improve the efficiency of legal research, disclose unexpected results and decrease the likelihood of missing important information. However, as Custers argued, data science does not replace or invalidate other research methods. It provides limited direct opportunities for some areas of legal research, such as theory development and investigating causality.
Marc van Opijnen, Adviser Legal Informatics at the Publications Office of the Netherlands (UBR|KOOP), gave a talk on legal information retrieval. What is meant by 'relevance', how can we improve search engines by making (textual) legal references computer readable and how can we profit from the citation networks that then become apparent? Van Opijnen summarized his Model for Automated Rating of Case law, designed to improve the accessibility of voluminous case law databases by establishing the legal importance of the court decisions contained therein.
Mark Dechesne, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs, further elaborated on the history of legal data science. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he argued, law enforcement has become increasingly intelligence led and legal science has become legal data science. Large databases, such as the Global Terrorism Database, have been created to identify patterns and trends that hint towards future terrorist attacks.
According to Dechesne, introducing data science to the legal field has important implications. Legal practice is becoming more and more multidisciplinary, judges and lawmakers will increasingly need to be data-savvy, and they will have to deal with sensitive issues of data sharing and privacy. In sum, legal data science not only offers great new opportunities; it also raises new questions.