Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Hagan Manifesto on PDF's

Used with permission from Ms. Hagan
Our favorite Law Design blogger, Ms. Margaret Hagan, has posted her “short manifesto” on “Law’s PDF Problem”.  I agree with her observations and offer some additional commentary.

Ms. Hagan is doing some excellent work in examining how legal systems have been designed (or not designed) over the past few years.  Her recent post looks at the problem of legal (including court) information being “buried in PDF’s”.  She notes:

“People do not like PDFs. They serve a very limited purpose — they keep the information frozen in the exact design that the author created, and let the author save some time up-front by merely having to upload the PDF to the web. But it puts the onus & the pain on the user.”
She also finds that PDF’s are terrible for users on mobile devices and, as we have noted here before, there is a serious problem with version control.  In many instances the user may be using an out of date form.  And she also notes that legal organizations will result in a higher Google search result ranking if “you liberate your text out of its frozen, buried PDF pile”.

Now for my commentary.  I think Ms. Hagan is right in her criticisms.  But, when I have tried to hold these conversations with judges and lawyers they argue that they must control the form of the information presentation.  They are convinced that particular information adjacencies and other structural ordering are critical for transmitting their argument.  I have no idea whether this is true or not, I am just passing along their argument.

I do think that the advent and further development of E-bench systems will help to break this concept as information should be formatted and presented as required by the task at hand.  Flat, locked PDF documents, created with one purpose in mind may or may not be useful in that format at another stage in the proceeding or, to assist in the decision making work of the judge.

And PDF technology is being enhanced with the implementation of the PDF/A-3 standard that would allow the XML or text file to be embedded in the PDF document so that it can be more easily used and consumed by online services.  An excellent document "The Benefits and Risks of the PDF/A-3 File Format for Archival Institutions" produced by the USA Library of Congress, National Digital Stewardship Alliance discusses the issues in detail.

In summary, Ms. Hagan’s criticisms are worth considering in your future court technology plans.

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