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University of Zurich: Exposing Blind Spots

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Legal data science refers to the application of data science principles to the law, for example through the computer-assisted systematic collection, processing and evaluation of data from legal contexts. This relatively young discipline now has an official home at UZH with the new Center for Legal Data Science (CLDS). The center’s director Tilmann Altwicker explains: “Legal data science does not usurp the traditional legal dogmatics, but forms an additional basic subject in the field alongside history of law, sociology of law and philosophy of law.”

Reviewing preconceived ideas
Quantitative legal research, which is included under the umbrella of legal data science, can help to expose certain blind spots in traditional legal studies by supplying empirical evidence about preconceived ideas. Florian Geering, doctoral candidate at the CLDS, was thus able to disprove a theory hitherto supported by the Swiss Federal Supreme Court and taught in law courses. The theory held that subsidiary constitutional appeals had no chance of success. These types of appeals are addressed to the Federal Supreme Court when there is no recourse to the usual routes – because the amount in dispute is below 30,000 francs, for example, or the subject of the dispute, such as the law on foreign nationals, is excluded.

Geering was able to show that in such cases, representation by a lawyer makes an enormous difference: contrary to what was previously thought, the success rate of subsidiary constitutional appeals is no lower than for other complaints, but without legal representation, they hardly ever win.

Finding hidden patterns
Altwicker, a professor of public law, philosophy of law and empirical legal research, sees legal data science as a kind of detective work. “We use quantitative methods to uncover hidden structures or patterns in the mass of legal data,” says the professor. “By recognizing these patterns, we can make predictions.”

Predicting court judgments
Data-based evaluations can allow researchers to predict legal judgments with a high degree of accuracy. Studies carried out for the US Supreme Court showed that it was possible to correctly predict judgments in around 70 percent of cases, thanks to new machine learning algorithms. “We believe that demand for such applications will only increase,” says Altwicker. “The growing availability of digital legal data will also bring down the cost of carrying out data-based evaluations and increase their use.”

More transparency
The digitalization of society and the associated generation of legal data has led to a mass of data which remains untapped, believes Altwicker. “Not only will the evaluation of legal data increase transparency of the entire judiciary, it will also lead to the discovery of ever more connections, throwing up new legal questions and creating fresh approaches to existing ones.”

Not least, legal data science also makes it possible to conduct meta-analyses of the legal system. “That means we can identify whether the complexity of the law is increasing in general and in which areas, for example,” says Altwicker.

Vanguard in Switzerland
In several countries including the USA, the UK, the Netherlands and Israel, legal data science and quantitative legal research already has a firm footing. In Switzerland, says Altwicker, it is still something of a delicate flower – especially in terms of Swiss law. At the UZH Faculty of Law too, the discipline is in its infancy. The new CLDS is set to change this. “With the CLDS, UZH is at the vanguard in Switzerland,” claims Altwickler.

Advice, support, implementation
As an interdisciplinary network hub, one of the center’s tasks is to disseminate findings and potential applications of quantitative legal research throughout the Faculty of Law. “We see ourselves as a platform for cooperation in research, teaching and continuing education.”

Alongside running their own research projects at the CLDS, Altwickler and his four-strong research team advise and support colleagues with empirical projects or conduct studies on their behalf. The CLDS also offers workshops on specific methods of quantitative legal research, such as the use of machine-learning methods for legal data. In addition, researchers who are already conducting quantitative legal research at UZH will now have a point of contact at the CLDS for questions around quantitative methods. In the long term, the CLDS wants to offer a continuing education program (CAS) aimed particularly at lawyers and court employees wishing to acquire basic knowledge of quantitative methods.

A changing profession
The CLDS will also take an active role in shaping the teaching curriculum for law students. Altwicker firmly believes that the professional lives of lawyers – especially attorneys or barristers – will look quite different in the future. Large law firms today are already looking for graduates who can demonstrate quantitative skills in addition to their legal qualifications. “It’s important that young law students acquire the necessary competencies while at university.”

Lectures, online courses and seminars will offer students the opportunity to learn about all those aspects of quantitative legal research – from formulating research questions to data collection methods, statistics and data science – that are necessary to be able to analyze and interpret data, and thus draw conclusions from them.