Legal information is boring. As much as you may enjoy reading a court case, a legal article or conducting legal research, the experience cannot realistically be compared to listening to a song or planning a vacation. Browsing a legal resource will never entertain you more than searching YouTube or TripAdvisor. Exceptionally, isolated masterpieces here and there spark a certain degree of buzz and then the tide of uninteresting data takes over again.
Legal information professionals and users should not feel singled out though, because legal information is not the only boring information out there.
But why is it that legal texts turn off many eager readers? Sometimes this is due to their inherent complexity. No one can reasonably expect to obtain a simple overview of the Canadian tax system. It is complex and so are the rules that enforce it. Sometimes, legal information is made unnecessarily complex. One could think that plain language is heresy amongst authors of primary legal information. Even though court cases stand closest to common everyday communication, a trend becomes apparent that court opinions are getting longer and more complex. Public access analysts say that it has become a challenge for judges and justices, public information officers, and members of the bar to make sure that the public understands what is expressed in a court opinion. Evidently, contracts are among the less legible documents. Consider any sample shareholder agreement that you can find on the web and try to locate a clause that can be understood at first glance, unlike this one:
(10) Two of the Shareholders may jointly accept the Offer to Sell under Section 3.04(2) and, in such event, the further provisions of Section 3.04 shall apply except that the number of Shares to be purchased by each of them under Section 3.04 may be set out in the notice given by them under Section 3.04(2) and Section 3.04(9) provided that the aggregate of such numbers equals the number of Shares beneficially owned by the Offeror.
In addition to necessary and unnecessary complexity and jargon, there is one more reason why legal documents are boring: they are exclusively textual which is not as fun and self-explanatory as graphics and images. The power of visual communication has long been exploited by other “boring” disciplines. The field of open data often emerges as a natural playground for visual applications. Visualization experiments are not recent at all as witnesses this article from 2007. Some readers may even remember data visualization efforts dating back to the nineties.
Legal information authors and providers are also starting to tap into the potential of visual communication. The examples are quite frequent. One of those examples is the use of visuals by courts illustrating their judgments. Fastcase visualizes its search results in the form of maps playing with relevance, recency and influence of court opinions. Similar to that, Ravel designed a court opinions search tool mixing influence, relevance and relations between cases. JustCite has been offering a visually mapped citator for several years.
Furthermore, in a field where you would least expect this, such as municipal law, the city of Kirkland designed an interactive map of municipally regulated activities allowing citizens to quickly and easily locate by-law provisions of interest to them. Thom Neale’s CiteFight using CanLII’s data is yet another great example of how citation data can be made visually appealing and pleasant to consult. In the field of legal information, such examples are popping-up more frequently than ever before.
Images are pretty, much prettier than text. But are they useful? Would you rely on floating bubbles or comics-looking tools in your research? The quick answer is: if you are about to fire up a barbecue in your backyard, yes; if you are selling your business, no.
However, these innovative tools deserve more consideration. Some researchers (wrongly) perceive those applications as not sufficiently serious for legal research. The thing is, law rules everything, from embryo to exhumation, and in between there is a lot of trivial stuff with less at stake. As Tom Bruce said, “We tend to think about legal research taking place in multibillion-dollar cases, but often it’s a dry cleaner trying to figure out how to stock chemicals.” Legal research is about risk management and not a single resource can be considered serious enough or sufficiently comprehensive when the stakes are really high.
So, are those applications attempting to make legal information less dull useful? Definitely yes. And we can be surprised by the number of users who are perfectly happy with “less serious” tools that are helping them find the answers they need through a more enjoyable and direct research process.