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New technology aids access to justice

04 October 2019 - By Lynda Hagen

Better access to justice for all New Zealanders – especially people from vulnerable or disadvantaged groups – has been a common theme behind many of the Law Foundation’s grants throughout its existence.

Over the years, Foundation funding has improved access to justice in some way for groups as diverse as children, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, sexual abuse victims, medical misadventure victims, ACC claimants and people with impaired decision-making capability, among others.

In recent years, the Foundation has also filled a rapidly-growing law and policy gap by backing research into the legal and public policy impacts of emerging new technologies through its Information Law and Policy Project (ILAPP) fund.

It’s therefore fitting that the last two projects to be supported under ILAPP before the Foundation goes into recess combine important new technology research and the prospect of improved access to justice.

One study potentially allows anyone – with or without a legal background – to understand judicial decisions that are relevant to their cases, through using analytic technology previously available only to academics and practitioners. The second, related research, on “Legislation as Code,” will look at how drafting law while simultaneously preparing it in machine-readable computer language can improve resulting legislation and how it is operationalised across government.

Automated Open Access Analytics

Under the Automated Open Access Analytics project, lead researcher Tom Barraclough and his co-researchers, Curtis Barnes and Warren Forster, will work with OpenLaw NZ to use its platform to develop software that can be used by anyone to analyse large volumes of judicial decisions.

A silhouette of a man looking at a cell phone

Over recent years, the Law Foundation has been the main funder for the New Zealand Legal Information Institute (NZLII), an open access website that makes New Zealand’s legislation, much of its case law and many decisions of specialist legal bodies freely available.

Mr Barraclough says this project takes access to legal information, such as that available through NZLII, a step further. It aims to help any researcher, trained or untrained, to understand the law, learn the true meaning of words in a statute, follow precedent and discover relationships between pieces of legal information, without requiring a high level of specialist knowledge.

“The core goal is to develop automated tools that greatly reduce the time and expertise necessary to conduct legal research, both academic and practical,” he says. “Insights that would once have required a team of legal researchers working many hours will be attainable by lay people in a fraction of the time.”

OpenLaw NZ uses open source, freely available software that can analyse case law and judicial decisions and convert those into useful data. The platform was developed by Andrew Easterbrook and William Parry, two participants in this research.

The project will run a test case using ACC case law as an example dataset to show the benefits that an open access automated data processor like OpenLaw NZ can bring.

Legislation as Code

The second “law as code” project explores a change that could be as transformative as the ancient shift from writing law on paper instead of stone. But it also raises questions to be explored by the research, such as the potential for unintended impacts of drafting law while simultaneously coding it.

Tom Barraclough and Curtis Barnes are working with law as code practitioner Hamish Fraser on this research. Mr Barraclough says the change offers huge promise, but won’t deliver unless there is public confidence in it.

“The ambiguity of logic within language is hard for computers. What are the impacts for people and justice if that ambiguity is reduced?” he asks. “Better understanding is needed to ensure the technology does not render the legal system opaque and inscrutable, or lead to revolutionary transparency.”

Mr Barraclough says the end of the Law Foundation’s ILAPP fund leaves a gap in advancing research around law and new technologies in New Zealand.

“There’s a very real need for research at the interface of law and technology, because there is a real risk that technology creates barriers to access to justice, as well as being able to remove them,” he says.

The Law Foundation’s research teams for this work are seeking to connect with people who have an interest in these projects or have insights to share. Contact with the research team can be made via the Law Foundation, and information on these and other ILAPP projects are detailed in our website.


Lynda Hagen lynda@lawfoundation.org.nz is Executive Director of the New Zealand Law Foundation.

Last updated on the 4th October 2019