Can we transform legislation into computer code?

March 2021

In 2019 we became aware of a movement to convert legislation, or statute law, into computer code. This topic immediately grabbed our interests as a transformative digital shift in the wider legal and political system.

We applied to the New Zealand Law Foundation to fund an investigation of feasibility, risks and benefits. We found a fascinating body of scholarship and an intricate community of experts across various disciplines in law, technology and public policy.

Our investigation led us to greater insights into the policy process in New Zealand and to build connections with a range of agencies including the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Parliamentary Counsel's Office, the Department of Internal Affairs, the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment, the Ministry for the Environment, the Inland Revenue Department, and more.

Brainbox concluded that the concept of law or legislation as code has promise, while also concluding that advocates had over-stated the opportunities and benefits. The Department of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Social Development took up our recommendation to apply a "better rules approach" to accessibility regulation. Tom Barraclough also participated in an investigation about how parts of the Resource Management Act 1991 might be modelled computationally with a view to the ongoing re-drafting of resource management legislation.

The benefits of law as code could best be realised through scrutiny of specific cases. That means building more systems. We say the Digital Legal Systems Lab is the appropriate place to do this.