Case synthesis is the method commonly applied by legal researchers and law students when analyzing court decisions. It essentially entails that case outcomes are compared with the facts of the cases, with the purpose of explaining the differences in outcomes by the differences in facts. The analysis of court decisions commonly relies on human analysis, without software or other technical aid. Consequently, case law is analyzedbased on a relatively small number of cases. In contrast, the law produces numerous cases. In 2013 alone, Dutch courts of first instance handled almost 800,000 private law cases (for example contract termination, damages, divorce).Consequently, the legal field currently studies a fraction of the cases that are out there. As a result, relationships between cases are therefore likely to be hidden.

This project aims to develop a technology that assists the legal community in analyzing case law. With tens of thousands court decisions (in the Netherlands) that are published yearly, numerous decisions remain unstudied. In this project, a technology will be built that allows analyses of which court decisions are central in a network of decisions. This will be done by focusing on citations: the number of references to a certain court decision in other court decisions (in-degree centrality).

The in-degree centrality of court decisions is likely reveal new patterns among decisions on various topics. Moreover, it will shed more light on which decisions are the most important within a certain network. The automated process that will be developed enhances the analysis of relationships among a large number of decisions. Future projects may expand the application by

  1. processing additional information in the decisions and coding it into researchable variables; and 
  2. expanding the technology to other countries than the Netherlands.

This project (and future projects) can fundamentally transform the way the law is studied (researchers, students) and used (practitioners).

Image: Jeroen Bouman – ICJ – JCI hearing (CC License) 

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