Until September 2009, I worked on the Estrella Project (The European project for Standardized Transparent Representations in order to Extend Legal Accessibility) at the University of Liverpool. One of the documents which I co-authored (with Trevor Bench-Capon) for the project was the ESTRELLA User Report, which is an open document about key elements of the project. In the context of commercial, academic, governmental collaborations, many of the issues and topics from that project are still relevant, especially concerning motivations and goals of open source materials for legal informatics. In order to circulate this discussion further afield, I have taken the liberty to reproduce an extracted from the article. LKIF stands for the Legal Knowledge Interchange Format, which was a key deliverable in the project. For further documents from the project, see the Estrella Project website.
The Estrella Project (The European project for Standardized Transparent Representations in order to Extend Legal Accessibility) has developed a platform which allows public administrations to deploy comprehensive solutions for the management of legal knowledge. In reasoning about social benefits or taxation, public administrators must represent and reason with complex legislation. The platform is intended to support the representation of and reasoning about legislation in a way that can help public administrations to improve the quality and efficiency of their services. Moreover, given a suitable interface, the legislation can be made available for the public to interact with. For example, LKIF tools could be made available to citizens via the web to help them to assess their eligibility for a social benefits as well as filling out the appropriate application forms.
The platform has been designed to be open and standardised so that public administrations need not become dependent on proprietary products of particular vendors. Along the same lines, the platform supports interoperability among various components for legal knowledge-based systems allowing public administrations to freely choose among the components. A standardised platform also enables a range of vendors to develop innovative products to suit particular market needs without having to be concerned with an all-encompassing solution, compatibility with other vendors, or being locked out of a strategic market by “monolithic” vendors. As well, the platform abstracts from the expression of legislation in different natural languages so providing a common, abstract legal “lingua franca”.
The main technical achievement of the Estrella Project is the development of a Legal Knowledge Interchange Format (LKIF), which represents legal information in a form which builds upon emerging XML-based standards of the Semantic Web. The project platform provides Application Programmer Interfaces (APIs) for interacting with legal knowledge-based systems using LKIF. LKIF provides formalisms for representing concepts (“ontologies”), inference rules, precedent cases and arguments. An XML document schema for legislation has been developed, called MetaLex, which complements and integrates national XML standards for legislation. This format supports document search, exchange, and association among documents as well as enforces a link between legal sources and the legal knowledge systems which reason about the information in the sources. In addition, a reference inference engine has been developed which supports reasoning with legal knowledge represented in LKIF. The utility of LKIF as an interchange format for legal knowledge has been demonstrated with pilot tests of legal documents which are expressed in proprietary formats of several vendors then translated to and from the format of one vendor to that of another.
The Estrella Project originated in the context of European Union integration, where:
- The European Parliament passes EU wide directives which need to be incorporated into or related to the legislation of member states.
- Goods, services, and citizens are free to move across open European borders.
- Democratic institutions must be strengthened as well as be more responsive to the will of the citizenry.
- Public administrations must be more efficient and economical.
In the EU, the legal systems of member states have been composed of heterogeneous, often conflicting, rules and regulations concerning taxes, employment, education, pensions, health care, property, trade, and so on. Integration of new EU legislation with existing legislation of the member states as well as homogenisation of legal systems across the EU has been problematic, complex, and expensive to implement. As the borders of member states open, the rules and regulations concerning the benefits and liabilities of citizens and businesses must move as people, goods, and services move. For example, laws concerning employment and pension ought to be comparable across the member states so as to facilitate the movement of employees across national boundaries. In addition, there are more general concerns about improving the functionality of the legal system so as to garner public support for the legal system, promoting transparency, compliance, and citizen involvement. Finally, the costs of administering the legal system by EU administrative departments, administrations of member states, and companies throughout the EU are signficant and rising. The more complex and dynamic the legislative environment, the more burdensome the costs.
Given this background context, the Estrella Project was initiated with the following purposes in mind:
- to facilitate the integration of EU legal systems
- to modernise public administration at the levels of the EU and within member states by supporting efficiency, transparency, accountability, accessibility, inclusiveness, portability, and simplicity of core governmental processes and services
- to improve the quality of legal information by testing legal systems for consistency (are there contradictions between portions of the law) and correctness (is the law achieving the goal it is specied for?).
- to reduce the costs of public administration
- to reduce private sector costs of managing their legal obligations
- to encourage public support for democratic institutions by participation, transparency, and personalisation of services
- to ease the mobility of goods, services, and EU citizens within the EU
- to support businesses across EU member states
- to provide the means to “modularise” the legal systems for different levels of EU legal structure, e.g. provide a “municipal government” module which could be amended to suit local circumstances
- to support a range of governmental and legal processes across organisations and on behalf of citizens and businesses
- to support a variety of reasoning patterns as needed across a range of resources (e.g. directives, legal case bases).