Exploring the complexity of the law


This simple, perennial question has occupied many scholars, politicians, and dinner table conversations.  Up until recently, very little rigorous research had been conducted on the topic.  In our seminal work on the topic, which you can read about in brief here or in full here, we set out to concretely measure the aspects of complexity. What aspects, you ask?

Elements of Legal Complexity

In the paper, we set out three broad types of complexity that affect the law, and, in particular, statutory frameworks:

  • Structure, e.g., concept organization and codification
  • Language, e.g., quantity and difficulty of words
  • Interdependence, e.g., quantity and type of citations between provisions

Each of these types of complexity can be measured using graph theory and natural language processing, and we do so with the United States Code. The end result is a set of measurements that can be blended into a composite measure of legal complexity, by code section, Act, or Title.

Exploring Legal Complexity

But what if you want to explore legal complexity yourself?  Say, for example, you want to compare the Bankruptcy and Tax codes to see which has more citations per words.  Again, up until recently, you were out of luck unless you had a strong technical background.  Today, we’re releasing the U.S. Code Complexity Explorer, a tool for interactively browsing, comparing, and visualizing complexity in the U.S. Code.  The Complexity Explorer allows you to ask and answer questions like:

  • Which Titles of the Code have the most sections?
  • Which Titles of the Code have the most citations per words?
  • Which Titles of the Code have the longest average word length?

You can visualize the results interactively on the charting page, or view the raw tabular results on the  comparison table.  If you want to create your own Title ranking similar to those in the paper’s appendix, you can also use the custom weight tool to build your own complexity ranking.

U.S. Code Complexity Explorer

U.S. Code Complexity Explorer: Relationship between Number of Sections and Linguistic Measures

Have fun exploring the complexity of the law!