Until very recently, the impact of the ‘IT revolution’ was quite modest for knowledge sectors such as law. This is now changing rapidly. Big data and smart technologies together combine in many fields to reduce the need for human input while simultaneously increasing aggregate impacts on humans. Their deployment in society poses fundamental challenges to which the legal system must respond, while at the same time also impacting the operation of the legal system itself. Understanding the causes and consequences of such changes is of great significance, not only for those working in and studying the legal system, but also for computer scientists and social scientists more generally.

In order to reflect upon these developments, a group of colleagues from the Law Faculty and Saïd Business School (John Armour, Horst Eidenmüller, Sarah Green, Jeremias Prassl, Mari Sako, and Rebecca Williams) are hoping to co-ordinate a year-long series of interdisciplinary workshops, starting in Trinity Term 2017, exploring the theme of Mechanisation of Law.

The research questions encompass three dimensions: (i) Foundational challenges for law. Data aggregation and non-human agency create deep challenges for the protection of human autonomy and notions of legal personality and responsibility. How should drafters of legal norms and systems engineers ensure the realisation of appropriate social outcomes? (ii) Substitution effects: To what extent can non-human capacities substitute for human agency in the legal system, and how will this affect the system’s functioning? The productive efficiencies in mechanisation are apparent. Yet law’s social function is a normative and dynamic one: it seeks to structure and guide actions. These essential characteristics are seen most readily in the (sibling) processes of legal interpretation, adjudication, and rule production. To what extent can such functions be replicated by non-human processes, and what are the social implications of such replication?  (iii) Changing human roles. How will the work done by lawyers evolve alongside the technological changes? What are the implications for legal services forms and strategy, and for the competency and training requirements for future legal professionals?

The series’ centre of gravity will be in the Law Faculty, but the workshop coordinators will seek systematically to engage with colleagues from other disciplines, and expressions of interest in participation have been received from colleagues in Law, the Saïd Business School, the Department of Computer Science, the Oxford Internet Institute, the Department of Sociology and the Oxford Martin School. It is envisaged that the workshops will also engage ‘tech’ industry participants implementing the technologies under discussion; legal practitioners, other professionals and regulators tasked with using and responding to the issues in question; and academics from other institutions who have already established traction on the topics in question.

Assuming the project is funded, the workshop topics will be as follows (follow the links below to read a blog post on the subject):

1. Smart Contracts: Implications for Private Law and Regulation (TT 2017. Leader: Sarah Green)

2. Corporate Governance and Smart Technology (TT 2017. Leader: John Armour)

3. Data security law and policy (July 2017. Leader: Rebecca Williams)

4. Online markets and offline welfare effects (Sept 2017. Leader: Ariel Ezrachi)

5. Algorithmic Dispute Resolution (MT 2017. Leader: Horst Eidenmüller)

6. Mechanisation and the Strategies of Legal Services Firms (MT 2017. Leader: Mari Sako)

7. Artificial Intelligence and legal personality (HT 2018. Leaders: John Armour/Horst Eidenmüller)

8. Algorithms and Discrimination (HT 2018. Leader: Jeremias Prassl)