What is Computational Law?

(This post is a brief overview of Computational Law, aka Complaw. It is a response to numerous requests to clarify the nature of Complaw and to differentiate it from other areas of Legal Informatics.)


CodeX logo

Computational Law is the branch of legal informatics concerned with the automation of legal reasoning. While there are many possible applications of Computational Law, the primary focus of work in the field today is compliance management, i.e. the development and deployment of computer systems capable of assessing, facilitating, or enforcing compliance with rules and regulations.

Intuit’s Turbotax is a good example of an application of this sort. Millions use it each year to prepare their tax returns. Based on values supplied by its user, it automatically computes the user’s tax obligations and fills in the appropriate tax forms. Extensions provide users with support in financial planning.

Similar applications are possible in other areas of the Law – in dealing with privacy and security matters, in intellectual property rights management, in assessing compliance of plans with building codes (affected by local, county, state, and federal safety requirements), in electronic commerce (e.g. import/export restrictions on technology, drugs, and so forth), in labor law (e.g. occupational safety regulations and health care benefits, notably cases where state regulations interact with federal provisions), and so forth.

There are also applications that do not involve governmental laws. The regulations can just as well be the terms of contracts (e.g. delivery schedules, insurance covenants, real estate transactions, financial agreements). They can be the policies of corporations (e.g. constraints on travel, expenditure reporting, pricing rules). They can even be the rules of games (embodied in computer game playing systems).

While Complaw enables multiple applications of computers to the Law, it is important to bear in mind that not all computer systems that pertain to the Law are Complaw applications. As examples, consider document management systems such as those provided by Westlaw, LexisNexis, and others. These systems provide significant value to their users in retrieving legal documents. Some even provide semantic “tags” to improve search in dramatic ways. However, they do not themselves process the content of those documents in semantically meaningful ways. As a result, human specialists are needed to utilize that content.

What distinguishes Complaw systems from other instances of legal technology is their ability to apply regulations to real or hypothetical cases without additional input from human legal experts. Complaw systems provide answers, not just documents; and they do so in an autonomous fashion.

The idea of Computational law is not new. It dates back at least to the 1970s. In the years since then, scholars and technologists have developed the theory and technology necessary to build rudimentary but useful Complaw systems. At the same time, we have seen related technological developments in other areas, e.g. the widespread use of computers, the growth of the Internet, the proliferation of mobile devices, and the emergence of autonomous physical systems (such as self-driving cars and robots).

The upshot of these developments is that Computational Law has the potential to bring about dramatic changes to our legal system. It can improve the services provided by lawyers. It can help lawmakers and regulators craft better rules and regulations. More broadly, it can bring legal tools to everyone in society, not just legal professionals, thereby increasing compliance and enhancing access to justice.

Complaw is not going to eliminate the need for human legal professionals in the foreseeable future. However, there are many areas where Complaw systems can do as well as or even better than humans. Moreover, the widespread use of Complaw can save legal professionals from routine activity and allow them to concentrate in areas where their unique, human skills can provide the greatest benefit.


Citation: Genesereth, Michael R.: “What Is Computational Law?”, Complaw Corner, Codex: The Stanford Center for Legal Informatics, 2021, https://law.stanford.edu/2021/03/10/what-is-computational-law/.