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Introducing: the Digital Legal Systems Lab

We’re excited to finally share a new project that we’ve been working on for a little while now, and formally announce a new institution - the Digital Legal Systems Lab.

The context

No system - whether legal, political, or digital - is ever going to be perfect. But here at Brainbox, we’ve always found it difficult to accept systems that could be working better. We find it especially difficult if they have a significant impact on a wide range of people, or particularly vulnerable groups.

Before Brainbox existed, the primary area of work for our director, Tom Barraclough, related to New Zealand’s medico-legal system, which is especially unique because of the ACC scheme. It’s a system that, for a surprisingly large number of people, doesn’t work very well. That’s largely because of system design. As a legal system, it requires more than 3000 staff to process millions of claims a year, and even greater numbers of potential disputes. But as a system, it wasn’t designed with that in mind, and it’s hideously complex even to medico-legal experts. Looking at that system around 2017 was when Tom first wondered about the similarities between law/legislation and computer programs.

One day, like a bolt from the blue (Twitter’s recommender system), he saw Hamish Fraser post about “coding the ACC Act”. Tom reached out, and since then, they’ve done some fascinating work together, influenced by the enthusiasm and effort of a wider community of inspiring people.

One of the first things Tom and Hamish published together (alongside co-author Curtis Barnes) was a report funded by the Law Foundation, which concluded that the best way to manage the risks and realise the opportunities presented by “legislation as code” was through responsible experimentation. To build trust, and responsibly balance the power in those systems, knowledge and experience needed to be gradually built in a systematic way.

Enter: The Lab

Since the Law Foundation report was published, we’ve looked quite hard, and we haven’t yet found anywhere prepared to foster responsible "legislation as code" experimentation.

So, we’ve founded our own place - the Digital Legal Systems (DLS) Lab.

It’s a natural outgrowth and complement to the existing work we do at Brainbox. At the DLS Lab, we want to design digital systems to solve real world problems that are created or touched by the legal system. Importantly, these systems have to be built and designed to justify trust, as appropriate for legal and regulatory contexts.

Your role

You might be thinking - what does this all have to do with you?

In essence: the lab is a place for collaboration. Just like a regulatory system, it needs multi-stakeholder input. We want to work with government, academia, lawyers and legal drafters, and especially non-government organisations. We need specific examples of systems we can work on to demonstrate the potential we see. We need people who want to work in multidisciplinary contexts and understand that the word “code” has at least three different meanings to different types of people (to lawyers, developers, academics, and policymakers). We’ll also need a way to pay the bills, and we’re confident that will come.

To kick things off and mark the launch of the DLS Lab, Hamish Fraser has shared a post about a system we’ve worked on together. It’s fantastic work and he’s extremely thoughtful and talented. If this captures your interest, no matter where you are in the world, please get in touch.

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