The Legacy of Hammurabi

“It is one of the greatest anomalies of modern times that the law, which exists as a public guide to conduct, has become such a recondite mystery that it is incomprehensible to the public and scarcely intelligible to its own votaries.” – Lee Loevinger 1949

Code of Hammurabi

We live in a complex regulatory environment. As citizens, we are subject to governmental regulations from multiple jurisdictions – federal, state, and local. As members of organizations, we are subject to organizational policies and rules. As social beings, we are bound by contracts we make with others. As individuals, we are bound by personal rules of conduct.

The sheer number and size of regulations can be daunting. We may all agree on a few general principles; but, at the same time, we may disagree on how those principles apply in specific situations. In order to minimize such disagreements, regulators are often forced to create numerous regulations or very large regulations, to deal with special cases. An article in the National Review made this case forcefully. “The Lord’s Prayer is 66 words, the Gettysburg Address is 286 words, there are 1,322 words in the Declaration of Independence, but government regulations on the sale of cabbage total 26,911 words.”

Complicating the situation is the complexity of these regulations. Even small regulations can be very complex. Moreover, once regulations are created, complexity often increases as the regulations are changed and then changed again. The upshot is that it is difficult for most people to understand regulations without specialized legal knowledge and a substantial amount of study.

These problems make it difficult for affected individuals to find and comply with applicable regulations. The result is occasional lack of compliance, widespread inefficiency, and frequent disenchantment with the regulatory system.

Fortunately, these problems are not insurmountable. As a computer scientist, I see these as information processing problems. As such, I believe that they can be mitigated by information technology. What is needed is appropriate “legal technology” – information technology applied to laws. Ideally, the technology should empower all parties in our legal system, not just the legal profession per se. It should help legal professionals find and understand relevant material; it should help enforcement organizations monitor and/or enforce compliance; and it should help regulatory bodies analyze proposed regulations for cost, overlap, inconsistency, etc. Most relevant to my subject today and most important in real life, the technology should help affected individuals find, understand, and comply with regulations.

One step in this direction has already been taken. Today, the text of most legal documents (including statutes, regulations, cases, analysis) is available online. In some cases, the information is adorned with “semantic” tags / keywords to help in search. The good news is that these documents can be found using general search services, such as Google, or using services that specialize in legal information, e.g. those provided by companies like Westlaw and LexisNexis.

While these technologies are valuable for legal professionals, they are of less value to laymen. The quality of such search is limited; they often return too many documents and sometimes fail to find relevant information. Moreover, there is no automation; a specialist must still be there to read the documents and apply them to individual cases.

Computational Law has the potential to obviate the need for such tools. The technology has the potential to bring legal understanding and legal tools to everyone in society, not just legal professionals, improving compliance and enhancing access to justice. It is Law in the Machine.

Complaw technology has the potential for democratizing the law. It takes law out of the courtroom and the law office and makes it available to people who are not legal professionals. It makes it possible to embed the law in the real world, making it available to ordinary decision makers at the point of decision, when they are about to act or when they are planning how to act. It can alert people to their obligations; it can help people understand their rights and privileges; it can help people get their due from the government, from insurance companies, and so forth.

In a sense, Computational Law is the natural next step in a progression that began millenia ago. Around 1750 BC, Hammurabi had the laws of the land encoded in written form (literally cast in stone) so that citizens could know what was expected of them and what would happen if they violated those expectations. Since then, it has been the norm to encode rules in written form and disseminate first via books and more recently via the Internet. However, just writing things down is not enough when the laws are voluminous and difficult to understand. In a way, Computational Law is the first significant bit of progress in this regard since the days of Hammurabi.


Citation: Genesereth, Michael R.: “The Legacy of Hammurabi”, Complaw Corner, Codex: The Stanford Center for Legal Informatics, 2021,