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Written by: Alexis Sudrajat and Alexis N. Chun

The inaugural Computational Law Conference (“CLAWCON“) ran from 12 to 14 July 2023. Hosted in the Singapore Management University (“SMU“), the event saw speakers and attendees from private, public, regulatory, and academic organisations, some of whom had flown in from all over the world. They had come together to discuss the issues surrounding computational law from a multi- and interdisciplinary perspective. It was organised by SMU’s Centre for Computational Law (“CCLAW“), Singapore’s first and only research centre focused on applied research in the intersection between law and technology.[1]

Two distinguished speakers, Professor Lee Pey Woan, Dean of Yong Pung How School of Law (“YPHSL“), and Mr Yeong Zee Kin, Chief Executive of Singapore Academy of Law (“SAL“), delivered the opening keynote addresses of CLAWCON 2023. This article summarises both of these keynote speeches.

To go where there are dangers and opportunities

YPHSL, being a young law school, has a mandate to forge a new path. Professor Lee shared that the faculty identified legal technology and computational law as future-ready areas to focus on, given the tremendous momentum in the field and the vast potential for new products and applications to the legal industry. CCLAW was borne out of this agenda, with a specific aim of creating knowledge and building tools to improve the legal system and promote access to justice.

In this vein, the Research Programme on Computational Law (“RPCL” or the “Programme“),[2]  CCLAW’s anchor research programme, has been working towards designing a programming  language for law. Known as a domain-specific language (“DSL“) in computer science, it is essentially technical infrastructure that allows one to express the semantics, deontics, and pragmatics of law (and everything that makes up law) in code. This research is funded by the National Research Foundation, and the language as well as the technical tools that have been developed under the programme was showcased at CLAWCON 2023. 

The growth of the computational law scene in Singapore

Beyond SMU, computational law has been steadily gaining relevance in Singapore. Such was Mr Yeong’s observation from the trends that emerged since the dotcom period, attributing his insights to his time spent in technology regulation. He noted that in the past, this area was not collectively known as “computational law”, but merely consisted of scattered projects. Now, however, computational law is regarded as a branch of legal informatics that focuses on the automation of legal reasoning (according to the generative AI tool Bard, no less). The field focuses on compliance management, which is the deployment and development of systems capable of assessing, facilitating and enforcing compliance with rules and regulations. This is different from data analysis, the use of data to study the relationship between extraneous factors and how decisions are made.

Practical implementations of Computational Law

As one of Singapore’s foremost legal technology pioneers, Mr Yeong opined that computational law is an area worth investing in. He shared his personal experience with applying technology to legal processes, namely building an e-filing system for the Singapore Courts. These were the days before computational law, where legally trained persons had to first break down the Rules of Court into operational rules and user requirements. They were then brought together with information technology vendors to create requirement specifications, develop scenarios and perform acceptance testing. Latent errors that persisted in the system were difficult to correct. Moreover, this process had to be repeated semiannually to keep up with changes in the law. At present, he observed that computational law could make the process more efficient and accurate by using software code to eliminate mistakes and ensure requirements are correctly implemented. 

Next, Mr Yeong shared a use case from his time as Deputy Commissioner of the Personal Data Protection Commission (“PDPC“), in collaboration with the RPCL, to demonstrate a proof-of-concept that computational law could aid legal processes. When Singapore’s Personal Data Protection Act (“PDPA“) was amended in 2020, a requirement for reporting organisational data breaches was introduced. Based on the legislation, the PDPC built a portal for reporting breaches. The RPCL proposed automating the translation of the legal and quasi-legal rules relating to the data breach notification obligations under the PDPA, namely, their L4 language. Mr Yeong was on board as the output of it was an automatically generated wizard (generated from the codified rules) that answered the question of whether a data breach was a notifiable one under the PDPA. While there was room for improvement, given that the collaboration was at the proof-of-concept level, Mr Yeong highlighted that the translation was accurate, correct, and answered the questions in a way that was aligned with the PDPC’s intentions. More importantly, this project opened doors to future use of such tools, especially when the regulations were next amended. He proposed two ways of using this technology: first, use the tool to automate the implementation and have humans check through, or begin with human processes and use the technology for verification. 

Overall, Mr Yeong’s experiences, in addition to his stint as a technology, media and telecom lawyer, made it clear that the relationship between legal requirements and software code is the big question surrounding legal technology. In his roles, he grappled with whether the two combined would achieve legal certainty – that is, stakeholders’ intentions have been given effect to.

Similarly, Professor Lee urged the audience to consider how technology can improve processes in the legal industry, such as drafting, checking and citations. Concurrently, she raised the proliferation of controversies involving technology giants like Meta, which highlight the importance of reliability, verification, and quality assurance when implementing new technology. This is particularly important for legal technology, as the legal industry demands the highest levels of accuracy. Computational law is paramount to counteract the “hallucinative tendency” of generative AI models, as it builds on decades of research in formal methods, knowledge representation and symbolic logic. 

Another aspect of computational law is its interplay with humans, be it in development or implementation. Hence, with reference to the use cases to be presented at CLAWCON, Professor Lee encouraged the audience to consider the need for humans in the loop. 

Looking towards the future 

Mr Yeong shared three takeaways that were rooted in practicality. First, there are many real-world applications of computational law, both in the public and private sector. Public agencies need the assurance of accuracy in a regulatory landscape subject to change, and commercial applications are plentiful. He urged the audience to centre their attention on generating in-demand solutions.

Second, Mr Yeong cautioned the audience not to fall into the black hole of smart contracts and blockchain. Now is not the time for contracts to be fully converted into code. Rather, system builders should focus on executory obligations – those which are easy to translate into “if-then” statements – as they are easier to verify.

Last but not least, there are many ways to apply legal technology, and they will become more prominent in the years to come. Apart from improving workflow and delivering user services efficiently, Mr Yeong singled out compliance management as a burgeoning area. Compliance management uses technology as a tool used to ensure organisations fulfil their obligations through reporting and monitoring. For instance, the PDPC translated the principles of the PDPA into checklists for companies. Computational law could be used to develop software to ensure compliance by translating principles into code in a multi-step process.

Predicting the future by inventing it

In closing, Professor Lee shared a belief held by technologists: the best way to predict the future is to invent it. This set the scene for CLAWCON 2023 to be a space for creative and lively discussion surrounding the progression of computational law.

Both Professor Lee and Mr Yeong expressed excitement and hope for the future of computational law and legal technology. Drawing from their experience, they summarised the status of these developments in Singapore and what is to come, serving as an apt introduction to the area.

Acknowledgement: This research / project is supported by the National Research Foundation, Singapore under its Industry Alignment Fund – Pre-positioning (IAF-PP) Funding Initiative. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views of National Research Foundation, Singapore.

Editorial note: This article has been edited slightly by the editors of LawTech.Asia for language and editorial purposes. We note that this article has first been published by the Law Society of Singapore, and is being re-published here with the permission of the original authors.