Joshua Browder wants to replace lawyers with bots. And he’s making progress toward that goal. His app DoNotPay makes it easy for people to appeal parking tickets, seek asylum in the US or UK, or sue someone in small claims court.
But Browder is still a long way from being able to handle many legal tasks. There are plenty of reasons why the 21-year-old Stanford student’s ambitious plan is so hard. One is that in order for a bot to help you navigate the law, the bot needs to know the law, which is different from state to state and city to city. And it’s a moving target.
“The hardest thing for me is making my software work across every jurisdiction,” Browder says. “The slightest change in the law causes big problems.”
His job may be getting slightly easier. A growing “free and open law” movement aims to make the law more accessible to people who don’t have access to expensive legal databases. Governments and the legal industry are taking notice.
Making the law available might sound like a problem that’s already been solved. Federal, state, and local governments already post bills and laws online for all to see. But publishing individual laws isn’t the same thing as making the law open and accessible, says lawyer, librarian, and legal access advocate Sarah Glassmeyer.
That’s particularly true at the local level. One challenge for developers like Browder is that there’s no guarantee the online versions of laws posted by municipal governments or legal publishers will be be up to date. And Glassmeyer warns that the online versions are sometimes posted in formats that can be hard to access for people with disabilities or people on limited data plans.
Let’s say you want to build a fence around your yard and don’t want to get fined. Pulling up the most recent zoning laws from your local city council may not help much, because they may refer to other laws and regulations. So you’ll need to track those down too. And whatever other laws and regulations those refer to. What you need, in other words, is your local zoning code, the body of all the laws and regulations related to land use in your area.
There’s a good chance you can find this online, but if you live in a smaller town, it may not be published through the municipal government’s website. Instead, it may be published by what’s called a codification company. These companies take newly passed bills and regulations, and, based on notes provided by government attorneys, chop them up and organize them into legal codes for various topics. The level of detail in the guidance from government attorneys varies from place to place.
Codification services like American Legal Publishing or Municode typically post legal codes online, but Glassmeyer says they’re sometimes not searchable, making it harder for people to find what they’re looking for. Sometimes they’re only published as PDF files, which tend to gobble up more data than plain web pages, and might not be accessible to people with disabilities, such as those who rely on screen readers. PDFs also make life harder for people like Browder, or researchers who want to use analytics software to study the law, because they can be harder for software to process the text they contain.
Moreover, the codification companies often put restrictions on use of the codes they publish. That’s because, in some places, they own the copyright on the chopped and organized products they create. Carl Malamud has spent years compiling laws and legal codes on the website Public.Resource.Org. In 2015, he was sued by the state of Georgia for copyright violation after he published the state’s legal codes, complete with annotations published by LexisNexis. An unannotated version of the law was available for free online, but, unusually, the annotated version of the laws is considered the official version of the law in Georgia. Malamud argued that the annotated version wasn’t subject to copyright since it is the official version of the law, and in October, an appeals court ruled in Malamud’s favor.
Governments pay for codification services because keeping the legal code updated is a lot of work. A nonprofit organization called the Open Law Library aims to ease that burden with a software platform, already in use by the District of Columbia, designed to make it easy for governments to publish and update their legal codes online in formats that the public, and app makers like Browder, can easily use.
The Open Law Library’s software uses the instructions that government attorneys typically send to a codification company to create the text of legal code that governments can publish on their own websites, in any format they choose, and free for the public to use as they like.
The legal code can be published on GitHub, the popular software code hosting and collaboration platform. At its heart, GitHub is a tool for managing changes to text. Typically, that text is software source code, but it can also be poetry, blog posts, or legal code. Users can easily see what has changed when those changes were made, and even propose their own changes. That doesn’t mean that citizens can make arbitrary changes to the law. Government officials still need to accept the recommended changes. But it can create an avenue for citizens to flag mistakes. Joshua Tauberer, the creator of the GovTrack.us website, recently fixed a typo in the District of Columbia’s code using GitHub. Instead of having to wait as long as seven months for a codification company to make the change, DC’s attorneys were able to approve the fix in a matter of days.
Codification industry professionals dispute that their services are slow. “American Legal offers timely updates services to our code clients,” says Ray Bollhauer, an executive at American Legal Publishing. “Many of our municipal clients have us update their online codes as new ordinances are adopted and become effective.”
Nancy Helmer, who runs Seattle-based codification company Quality Code, acknowledges that some government legal code websites could be more user friendly, but she’s not convinced that automation software is the solution to the problem, as opposed to better web design. Quality Code hosts its customers’ legal code in a searchable, mobile-friendly, copyright free format. “Codification companies provide valuable services that extend far beyond an automated copy/paste system,” she says, noting that the process of integrating new laws into legal code is “complex.”
Open Law Library CEO David Greisen acknowledges that the organization’s software won’t replace codification companies entirely. “Some jurisdictions use our software to self-publish their code, some ask us to do the codification, and we will work with codification companies to help them publish their client’s laws on the Open Law Platform,” he says.
The ability to produce machine-readable code is an important feature of the organization’s work. Browder, from DoNotPay, calls the Open Law Library’s work a “game changer,” because putting legal code into GitHub, the framework that many programmers use to manage software, will make life much easier for app makers like him.
The codification industry isn’t sitting still, either. Municode, one of the largest codification companies in the US, has been on an acquisition spree in recent years to build an end-to-end software platform for municipalities to write and publish legal code, not unlike the Open Law Library’s platform. It also offers a service called MunicodeNEXT that can host municipal legal code, complete with features from flagging changes and viewing old versions of the code, in a usable way.
Municode president Eric Grant says whether someone like Browder would be allowed to reuse the information the company hosts on MunicodeNEXT for commercial purposes will be decided on a case by case basis. But the company will work with municipalities that want to make their code available to developers. For example, in 2015 Municode worked with the nonprofit organizations OpenGov Foundation and Code for America to help make Miami-Dade County’s legal code available in a free, machine-readable format. The law is finding its way into the open one way or another.