Computer Science Table: "Are we free to code the law?"

At this week's Computer Science Table (at noon on Friday, October 4, in Rosenfield 224A), we will consider attempts to write code that reflects the law (e.g., providing legal advice).

Lauritsen, Marc. “Are we free to code the law? ” Communications of the ACM 56 (2013), issue 8, 60–66.

The emergence of interactive online services for legal self-helpers has triggered suppression efforts by the legal profession, as well as by state government officials in the U.S. While couched in terms of consumer protection, and at least partly motivated by such concerns, these efforts are also seen by some as blatant turf management by a profession anxious to avoid further erosion of its monopoly over legal advice and representation.

Often neglected in these discussions is whether restricting the distribution of software is within the legitimate scope of government action. No one would contend that attempts to suppress books, pamphlets, and speeches on how the legal system works and what forms one needs to interact with it would pass constitutional muster. Is providing software that helps people meet their legal needs an activity the state can prohibit under the U.S. Constitution?

Here, I explore ways software-based legal-assistance systems can be understood for purposes of public policy and constitutional analysis. The focus is on circumstances in the U.S., but many other countries face the same issues.