To New York City Council member Benjamin J. Kallos, the threat of laws being furtively crafted by specific interests and closed groups stems from one existential core problem: no one outside of legal actually reads the law.
While judges regularly call out the legislature to clarify or fix laws in their case law decisions, “there is no elected official—including me, and I want to—who has the resources to read through those judicial decisions where judges are crying for help,” he told the audience at the “Hacking Your City” session of the 2016 Legal Hackers International Summit.
“The law hamstrings case law over and over again, and sometimes that law goes against what everyone wants,” Kallos added.
But he admitted that elected officials are restricted in what they can achieve in office. “Everyone from the city council member to the U.S. president” is faced with the same problem: “wherever you go, somehow you don’t have the power,” he said.
“We’ve got a democratic government, and it’s broken in a lot of different ways,” Kallos warned, adding that one pivotal challenge is that “a lot of people aren’t really engaging most of the time, and what ends up happening is we’re not included in the decision-making process. … Democracy actually requires, and in many places demands, public input.”
One of the ways to solve these problems, he said, was to use technology to make the law more accessible and understandable to the everyday person.
As an example, Kallos pointed to New York City’s City Record, the official journal of the city’s legal notices which “gets published five days a week and gets circulated to elected officials and community boards.”
“The problem is that this isn’t even legalese. This is as obscure as possible and additionally it publishes as a pdf,” he said.
But Kallos has had success translating the record into an easily scrollable web format and into an open data portal, “where you can pull it live on a daily basis,” he said.
Local New Yorkers are now able to find information on the city’s meetings, court notices and procurement process, among other things, he said, which can help them become involved earlier in a matter instead of when it’s too late to influence a decision.
A key part of this effort is bringing the city’s requests for proposals (RFPs) process out into the open. “Paying attention to procurement is key and making sure an RFP is actually asking for what you want is a huge deal,” Kallos said. “When the RFP goes to the wrong company in the wrong proposal that is going to build the wrong things,” that’s a serious problem, Kallos said.
Opening the City Record, however, is just the start for the councilman’s hopes to use tech in bringing accessibility and transparency to law.
“What my huge call to action is, is if we can replace all the lawyers and just create some software that can convert this to English—a government notice or legalese translated into English. … So these notices can actually be useful for folks, so they can get involved.”
To this end, Kallos launched the Free Law Founders with government, industry and academic officials from around the country.
He has also introduced a law in New York City’s Council “requiring all the RFPs, all the contracts, all the similar things to be open to the public,” and posted online.
While Kallos notes that there are organizations that profit from keeping access to law limited and restricted, he sees momentum building for a more open and inclusive legal system. “If we can organize together, we can change things,” he said.