Computational Law as an engineering discipline

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Revision 3
Original ‘2019 Revision 1 version published in Recht Innovative 01-2019


Currently, there is no widely accepted definition for Computational Law. The term itself also has several related, often almost synonymous forms: AI in Law, Computational Legal, Artificial Legal Intelligence, etc. The literature mostly contains inductive definitions when the notion is recorded as an umbrella term above the list of relevant topics of research and development.
The range from International Association for Artificial Intelligence in Law looks like this:

  • Formal models of legal reasoning
  • Computational models of argumentation and decision making
  • Computational models of evidential reasoning
  • Legal reasoning in multi-agent systems
  • Executable models of legislation
  • Automatic legal text classification and summarization
  • Automated information extraction from legal databases and texts
  • Machine learning and data mining for e-discovery and other legal applications
  • Conceptual or model-based legal information retrieval

Available data-centric definitions assume Computational Law mainly as a field of digitalization, standardization and logistics of legal data: “Computational Law: Expressing Law and Legal Processes as Standard Data Through Interoperable Service Interfaces (Dazza Greenwood, Lead Scientist at «Actionable law» means that legal data is available for a specific automated service in right form and at right time-space, thus a service could use it to execute law as a sort of automated legal process. Many of public developments of MIT are focused specifically on digitalization of certain important legal states: Digital Identity, Digital Assets, Digital Contracts.

Related definitions speak about employing information technologies to support legal tasks:

“AI in Law: Applications of advanced information technology to support tasks in the legal domain” (Michael Bommarito, MSE FE University of Michigan). «Computational law is an approach to automated legal reasoning focusing on semantically rich laws, regulations, contract terms, and business rules in the context of electronically-mediated actions (Love, Genesereth «Computational Law», 2005)

«Information technology» can have virtually any meaning today, starting with basic printer maintenance, so let us try to make an important distinction. The “informational” focus on law implies a deeper differentiation of its elements, beyond mere transactional or logistic perspective of life cycle of [chained] data blocks. Semantization of law is primarily an identification of regular elements and structures of higher abstraction level, making them manageable using portable models: logical representations (e.g. modal logics), generalizing statistical projections, ontologies.


Climbing up the ladder of the intellect stack, we can propose another important perspective and corresponding definition.

«The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.» said Karl Marx in his Theses On Feuerbach, 1845. If we go beyond a speculative stance of describing the world, if we assign Computational Law the task of changing the world, we must define it as an engineering discipline: as a regular activity equipped with a rational method. Changing the world in a methodical way is what engineering is all about.

Knowledge is a shared and distributed state of society, which determines its coordinated behavior. In short, knowledge determines action. In this optics, legal knowledge is a complex and multilayered social knowledge and agreement regarding legislative regulation of a part of public life. Knowledge supervenes on information and data, thus requiring special theoretical and practical focus. If we assign Computational Law the task of changing society, we must define it as an engineering discipline that primarily operate on knowledge. Knowledge, which can take semantically different forms (information) and transmitted on different media (data).

Systems engineering has amassed sufficiently strong intellectual tools of a high level of generality to help such a definition to take place. One may find a lot of incentives to employ them in domains, other then traditional for engineering. At the same time, it is necessary to identify the restriction, that most of these conceptual tools are designed to manage systems of interacting and interrelated 4D physical objects and states. 4D dimensionalism, positivist and objectivist representations and methods do not demonstrate good conceptual performance when tackling with social systems. Social and cognitive systems have orders of magnitude greater complexity, expose reflexive and non-inertial behaviour. However, careful choice of advantageous findings physical engineering can provide, intelligent adaptation and specialization of these methods still can have their place in modeling humanitarian contexts.

Having explicitly bound knowledge and action, and having acknowledged legal to be ‘engineered’, we can make the next definitions.


Modern systems engineering works perfectly with data and information, having accumulated vast experience in these domains, and an engineering definition could solely rest on these just fine. It appears, however, that a strong engineering definition of this kind of discipline requires a higher level of generalization than syntactic or even semantic approaches could provide.

Ultimately, the Computational Law objective is neither digitalization nor informatization. As outlined above, the objective is to transform and to support knowledge-centric legal practices. The focus on social action and its determinants shows that data and informational structures on its own are weaker determinants of social behavior, in a sense that between them and executed action lay the apparatus of concensus-dependent interpretation, axiology and psychology of a social agent.

Epistemization of a law is a recognition and building of actionable knowledge within legal domain. Thus the focus is shifted from data (transportation layer) and information (syntactic layer) to knowledge (interrelated interpretable constructs), cognitive determinants of specific social behavior. If digitalization is mostly concerned about data layer (Internet in all, all in Internet); informatization is concerned with changing format of representations; epistemization targets revamping knowledge, embedded in evolving social practices. All these are not a separate activities, but three views on the single transformation process.


Computational law: research discipline and a group of knowledge-centric technologies to support law and jurisprudence, with the following objectives:

  1. enable representation of legal and other relevant domain knowledge as Turing computable functions;
  2. enable analysis, algorithmic inference, and synthesis of legal knowledge;
  3. enable interpretable, actionable output in a form suitable for use by humans or machines.

These three categories form a set of goals and functions closed above life cycle of legal knowledge of a social agent: input, processing, output.

Purpose: automated management of life cycle of actionable legal knowledge to support social practices.

This definition encompasses the following systemic categories:

  1. the target system: actionable legal knowledge
  2. the class of using systems: jurisprudence or any other social activity requiring legal support
  3. the enabling system: domain specific facility to perform input, processing and output of legal knowledge

Data-centric practices of Computing Law, as defined above, in the context of this definition are considered encompassing technologically-dependent input, output, transportation, overall life cycle management of digital representations with requirements, specific to legal domain. Blockchain is the first example.

Information-centric technologies of Computational Law are considered encompassing life cycle management of semantical elements of law that exist upon facilities of digital platforms. Smart contracts as an example of such a formation.

Epistemic technologies is an interface between humans, services, cyberagents, society and the supersocial. Epistemic architectures dictate social effects and rules of governance for legal sociotechnical systems. «Financial contract» is an example of the epistemic, actionable construct that spans through or lives in a number of ontologies, document forms, methods of storage, execution and interpretation, and thus realizes coherent and valuable part of diverse contexts of our social life.

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