Versioning on Legal Applications Using Hypertext

Regina Leung

Department of Information Systems
City Polytechnic of Hong Kong
83 Tat Chee Avenue
Kowloon, Hong Kong


Lawyers often spend a considerable amount of time in drafting a legal document for a specific case by referring to various precedents. Each precedent may consists of a number of versions. The main objective of this paper is to discuss aspects of versioning for legal hypertext systems, identifying problems and suggesting solutions. This paper concentrates on the law evolves through precedents. The proposed legal hypertext system will capture, store and retrieve different versions of a precedent in a hierarchical structure.


The law is created and evolves through statutory changes, through bilateral or multilateral instruments, through the application of customs, and through precedents. Bratley discussed versioning problem through statutory changes [1]. For the purposes of this paper, the focus will be on the versioning feature through precedents.

Precedents are a judicial decision that serves as an authority for deciding a latter case. An agreement for Lease [2], for example, is shown as follows:


THIS AGREEMENT is made the __________ day of ___________
BETWEEN (1) (landlord) [of (address) or whose registered office
is at (address)] ('the Landlord') and (2) (tenant) [of (address) or
whose registered office is at (address)] ('the Tenant')

A precedent consist of a number of clauses. Clauses of the Agreement for Lease are displayed as follows:

2  Works
2.1   The Tenant shall be allowed into possession of the Premises
by the Landlord for the purposes of carrying out the Tenant's
Works but not for any other purpose and the Tenant shall not
be permitted to trade from the Premises until the Tenant's
Works have been duly completed and the Lease shall have
been granted
2.2  The Tenant shall:
2.1:1   use his best endeavours to obtain as soon as possible
after the date of this agreement the grant of any
licences certificates or permits necessary for using the
Premises for the purposes specified in the Lease and
shall pay all fees and other costs in that connection and
as soon as the Tenant shall have obtained all such
licences certificates and permits it shall notify the
Landlord and shall provide the Landlord with certified
copies and shall keep the Landlord regularly and fully
informed of the Tenant's progress in obtaining them.

In the above example, clauses are numbered 2, 2.2 or 2.1:1. As further judicial cases are settled, any or all of these clauses could be amended or deleted.

Although experts in law, lawyers typically have little or no knowledge about Information Technology. Any legal hypertext system developed should therefore be user-friendly and easy to maintain. The proposed system should allow the hypertext system to be updated without a complete reorganisation. System designers should be able to make alterations to the hypertext system with minimum effort. Such features would cut down the maintenance cost as well as time spent on repairing the hypertext system.

Versioning is identified as a key feature in the hypertext system [3]. However, this issue has not been widely discussed by researchers. Versioning in Statues and Cases has been discussed and illustrated by Wilson [5]. In Wilson's paper, the current version of legislation can be referred to the early version by selecting a glossary button. The required version will be displayed before it was amended. This paper will discuss how the various versions of a precedent can be captured, stored and retrieved in a hierarchical structure.

In the legal hypertext system, precedents consist of a number of clauses. Each clause is stored in a node and related nodes are connected by links. The structure of the hypertext system is called a web, where a change in a clause of a precedent means a new node or link may be added, deleted or changed. This paper will discuss the requirements for developing this legal hypertext system and suggest a proposed methodology for this system.


2.1 Consistency

Compared with versioning in Linear Documents, versioning in hypertext system is considerably more sophisticated and complicated. A legal document consists of a number of clauses. These clauses normally come from a considerable number of precedents. Each precedent may involves a number of versions in a legal hypertext system. A number of questions arise when lawyers intend to make any changes to a precedent. What will be the impact of the change of a source precedent to its connected precedents? It is possible that changes may be appropriate to some connected precedents, but not necessarily to all connected precedents. Once a source precedent is modified, the connected precedents will be updated by batch or at real-time.

2.2 Multi-user

On the other hand, it is likely that "the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing" situation will occur [4]. Two lawyers may attempt to modify the same precedent with different and conflicting intentions. How can the system be sure that they don't overwrite one another? How can the system ensure that changes by two lawyers will not conflict with each other and maintain consistency?

2.3 Quality and Reliability

Corrections can be minor or major to the precedent and the question arises of how the significance of a change can be classified as a new version of the precedent is created. For a long period of time, all of the source precedents may involve some changes at different times. How can we ensure that changes have been made and recorded properly? How will the change affect the quality and reliability of a precedent? How can we be sure that changes to a precedent is still properly describing a specific case? What will the client's new perspective be to the modified precedent?


The proposed legal hypertext system should not only be able to refer to various source precedents, but also to retrieve different versions of each source precedent. The system should allow lawyers to view all the versions of a precedent and to retrieve a specific version of the precedent at any time. When the legal system is too large, lawyers may have difficulty in deciding which version of the precedent is more relevant for drafting a new precedent. Lawyers may spend a considerable amount of time in navigating the legal hypertext system and searching for the appropriate version of a precedent. The problem is, how does a law firm identify and manage the many existing versions of a precedent in a manner that will enable changes to be accommodated efficiently and retrieval to be handled effectively?

3.1 Hierarchical Structure

To tackle this problem, the system developed must be able to store the different versions of a precedent in a hierarchical structure. If a lawyer highlights a unit text of the precedent, the system will ask whether the lawyer want to review the explanation of the text unit or the versions of the corresponding precedents. If the latter one is chosen, the system will show different versions of this precedent in chronological order. The classification of the versioning varies from case to case. The lawyer can choose a particular period of time which the precedents have been updated. The system will then display headings of all the changes being made during the specific period of time. The lawyer can select an appropriate heading and the system will show the required version of the precedent on screen or print a hardcopy.


This paper has outlined a number of problems and possible solutions to navigating a legal hypertext system. A prototype will be developed based on the proposed legal hypertext system in HyperCard v2.2 on a Macintosh computer. The prototype will then be evaluated from a designer's and a user's point of view. Legal practitioners will be invited to test the legal hypertext system. The testing criteria are listed as follows:

These are the questions the research will attempt to answer.