How can network analysis lead to a new way of studying court decisions?

Gijs van Dijck, Professor of Private Law, Maastricht University

Photography and text: Elodie Burrillon / HUCOPIX

Gijs van Dijck is a young professor of Private Law at Maastricht University. For the last six months, he has been working with Dafne van Kuppevelt, eScience Research Engineer at the eScience Center, on the project “Case Law Analytics”. The aim is to develop a technology that assists the legal community in analyzing case law. Here is the story of their collaboration.

A law specialist with an innovative mind

Gijs started his PhD in Private Law 14 years ago. He continued working as a researcher because he enjoys the freedom to explore and discover new things that mean something to the field. For all these years, he has been acquiring experience as an empirical legal scholar, and since September 2016 he is working as a professor at Maastricht University.

Three years ago, Gijs stumbled across an article where network analysis was applied in a legal context. He realized then the enormous potential of this technology for his field: it could lead a new way of studying court decisions by legal academics, lawyers, legal advisers, and law students. But Gijs is a legal scholar, and not a computer scientist.

The legal community is no pioneer in the field of technology and analytics. But this project is something that could transform the field — Gijs

When he heard about the eScience Center, it seemed like the perfect way to work on this promising research. With a grant that would bring him both financial support and expertise, he could start developing his idea on a small level, with the help of an eScience Research Engineer who would develop the appropriate technology.

In May 2016, he applied for an eScience grant. Here is in essence what his project would be about:

Case synthesis is the method commonly applied by legal researchers and law students when analyzing court decisions. The analysis of court decisions commonly relies on human analysis, without software or other technical aid. Consequently, case law is analyzed based on a relatively small number of cases. In contrast, the law produces numerous cases. This project aims to develop a technology that assists the legal community in analyzing case law.

A tale of two fields

A couple of months after his application, Gijs was pleased to learn that his proposal was accepted: “The granting procedure went all very fast and smooth with the eScience Center. From the beginning, they were very positive and collaborative — and I think this is representative of the mentality of the whole center: they really look for opportunities rather than for limitations.”

Dafne van Kuppevelt is an eScience Research Engineer, and she started working with Gijs in September 2016. Being a computer science expert, she knew little about law. Gijs is legal scholar, and he knew little about data science. But step by step, they understood the practices, constraints and vocabulary of each other’s field.

Gijs van Dijck (left) and Dafne van Kuppevelt (right)
I listen to what the needs for the legal research community are, and I try to translate that into the technical possibilities — Dafne

Gijs: “We are collaborating, but from different backgrounds and with different expertises. And that’s what I really like. She’s there to help the field but from her independent, own way. And it’s not like she’s stuck in her own field; she’s also interested in what we are doing and how to answer research questions that are relevant.”

“This is a really nice collaboration. I really like this setup of assigning an eScience Research Engineer. And it’s very efficient not only thanks to Dafne, but also thanks to all the team of eScience Research Engineers who can help her at any time, if need be. Another point that I like very much is the sustainability aspect: the eScience Center tries to build tools that others can use, too.”

Disruptive results

Dafne developed a visualization tool that now enables legal researchers to analyze a network of cases linked to each other via their citations.

The advantages are twofold: the network allows researchers to analyze a huge amount of cases in a very short amount of time, and it also enables them to discover new things that they would have difficulties to otherwise notice.

We are at the beginning of a very big thing. So much that everything we develop becomes relevant - this is very exciting — Gijs

Fifteen students of Gijs are currently working on these networks, and with only little experience in the field they can already see things that legal experts would miss. Gijs: “One master student was discussing cases the other day with an expert in the field, and after running a network analysis on the data set for a few minutes, he could point out some cases that the expert had missed. It’s quite amazing to see how, thanks to this tool, a student can, in some ways, outperform the expert.”

Now that the front-end of the software is up and running, Dafne and Gijs will be working on improving the back-end, by extending the visualisation tool by adding an automated search option.

But the results are already there, and Gijs’ colleagues are already amazed by the possibilities of this tool.

If Gijs would work again with the eScience Center?

“That’s for sure”, he says. “I’m really glad they’re here and I hope it can continue after the end of the project (in September 2017). This is exactly what I needed. And I think this is what research needs.”


Are you interested in the Netherlands eScience Center’s funding opportunities, have a look at https://www.esciencecenter.nl/funding

More about the “Case Law Analytics” project here: https://www.esciencecenter.nl/project/case-law-analytics