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Making the law: The importance of legal taxonomies

Making the law: The importance of legal taxonomies

Posted by zenaira-khan | 16 January 2017


“A documented and orderly set of types, classifications, categorizations and/or principles that are often achieved through mechanisms including but not limited to naming, defining and/or the grouping of attributes, and which ultimately help to describe, differentiate, identify, arrange and provide contextual relationships between Legal Items, Entities or Types.” [1]

Taxonomies influence the way we think about and research the law, by creating a navigable map of legal terms. In so doing every element of the law is drawn out and classified according to some similarity, to create a streamlined collection of categories under which we can find the specifics of the law. What this presents us with is the DNA of a judgment.

Going back in history, we can trace the idea of a legal taxonomy to the famous Roman jurist Gaius and his writings in the Institutiones. This legal handbook broke from the norm by arranging legal subjects according to scientific principles, under three headings: persons, things and actions. This formulaic approach to the law is said to originate from the fact that actions were tried by a system of formulae, or formal directions of the magistrate. Over time, this concept has influenced the civil codes of France, Italy and Germany. It is not, even, far-fetched to say that legal taxonomy and classification has pervaded all legal systems.

At their very heart, legal taxonomies present us with the DNA of a judgment or piece of legislation. This facilitates easier legal research.

CategoriserScreenshotWe have not used simple catchwords. Using the work of Gaius as a foundation, we can now add editorial insight to taxonomic classifications. Once our classifier has extracted descriptors and key phrases from documents, legally trained editors review and approve its output. Synonyms of terms are added to the overall taxonomy to improve searchability.

Terms used by the user when undertaking a search are compared with the taxonomical terms that the classifier has attached to the documents, to produce a list of the most relevant search results. Documents classified with terms matching the user’s search terms are consequently given a boost to appear nearer the beginning of the results.

This hybrid approach to taxonomies ensures the accuracy of classifications and their place in the categories they are created under, while promoting consistency in approach. To date we have applied it to the case law of jurisdictions including the United Kingdom and Australia, with the assistance of leading researchers from those areas. At a country-wide level this ensures that users are able to search using key terms found in their jurisdiction’s legal lexicon to find the documents most relevant to them that they need. All this without suffering the pitfalls found in an entirely subjective approach, or those discovered when relying purely on automatic classification programmes to analyse judgments.

Our taxonomy has even paved the way for identifing key phrases discussed in judgment and how they have been referenced in subsequent cases; what we like to think of as retrospective headnotes.

With tools like this the possibilities of legal research have been broadened. But this is only the beginning. As legal technologies get smarter, so will the way in which we research. JustisOne is the latest innovation in smart technology with unique and never before seen features such as power paragraphs, a new and improved precedent map and access to case classifications… All accessible in an effortless interface.


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