Data mining the High Court
How can we make courts more efficient while retaining a just judicial system? Law Professor Anita Stuhmcke and Senior Lecturer Pam Stewart are mining data from High Court decisions to find out.
In Australia’s highest court, the right to appeal is not automatic. The litigant must apply to the Court for a “special leave to appeal” — which is then examined by a panel of five to seven judges.
These applications cover the full spectrum of legal matters including family law, taxation, immigration, contracts, personal injury and others, except constitutional issues, and comprise the largest volume of matters that it deals with — and it’s increasing each year.
“The current process is transparent,” says Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Law Pamela Stewart. “But there has to date been no statistical analysis of types of application, of litigants and of outcomes.”
In a bid to make Australian courts more efficient and fair, Stewart and Professor Anita Stumcke are using data mining to uncover previously unknown trends in the system about these special leave to appeal applications. To do this, they are focusing on a snapshot, a dataset of 1200 applications over a two-year period taken from the Australasian Legal Information Institute (AustLII) database.
“One of the interesting things is that the material is sitting there, it is ready to be looked at, but no one has put it in a format of coding it, and then cross-referenced all the bits of data,” says Stuhmcke.
According to Stuhmcke, data analysis and the discipline of law have “traditionally gone together like apples and oranges”. In legal terms, data is usually only relevant in the protection of individual privacy or in terms of access to government information.
For their project, the researchers are coding each special leave to appeal application for over 40 attributes, such as success rates for litigants, time taken to resolve applications, gender and nature of applicants and respondents, self-representation, legal professionals involved and the use of technology such as video links.
“From this research, we will see whether taxation appeals are more often successful in special leave applications than immigration cases; whether female applicants are more likely to succeed than male; if success is more likely in cases originating in Western Australia; if there’s a combination of judges that grant leave more often than others,” says Stuhmcke.
The pair believe their research will inform legal practitioners, judicial officers, litigants and the wider administrative machinery of government about how to make our appeals process more efficient and equitable.
Photographer: Fiona Livy