Library of old stuff

If you think legal design and human-centred law is a modern innovation, think again. In his keynote opening at the Legal Design Summit in Helsinki, Marco Imperiale took us back to the Byzantine era. And now I can’t stop thinking about the Codex Justinianus. Thanks, Marco.

Could legal design be traced all the way back to the Byzantium Empire of the sixth century? And could Emperor Justinian I be the first true ‘legal designer’?

What is legal design?

Legal design is a way to make the entire legal system more people-centric, says Hannele Korhonen, founder of the Lawyer’s Design School in Helsinki.

“It starts from the user, rather than from the law. Human-centricity and empathy are at the heart of legal design,” Korhonen says.

Similarly, the Legal Design Lab at Stanford frames it as using “human-centred design and agile development methodology to design new solutions for legal services”.

So where does that leave Justinian?

What did Justinian do to earn the title of legal designer?

In February 528 CE, Justinian embarked on a massive legal reform project, assembling a team of legal experts and scribes to re-evaluate Byzantine law. The team distilled the essence of over two thousand books and three million lines of text into a new legal code—often referred to as the Code of Justinian or the Corpus Iuris Civilis.

But was this legal design?

Spoiler: we think it was. Here’s why:

It was usable: The Justinian reform aimed to make laws more understandable to the general population, so much so, that the number of cases brought to courts based on misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the law were significantly reduced.

It was agile: Justinian’s team sifted through ancient Roman codes and more recent Byzantine edicts, identifying those that were outdated, contradictory, or redundant. By trimming the content, the process became dynamic, so that the Code of Justinian could always be adapted according to societal needs.

It was efficient: Justinian sought to speed up the legal process. His revamped system allowed for legal cases to be resolved quicker.

It was consistent: Justinian established a unified legal code. As the empire expanded, the Justinian Code could be extended consistently.

It was human-centric: While laws often come across as abstract and impersonal, Justinian aimed to make laws tangible and relevant to everyday life, thereby embodying the core principles of legal design.

To draft is human, to clarify is … divine?

Dante Alighieri, in his Divine Comedy, placed Justinian in heaven, not for his conquests but for his role in establishing just laws. Justinian tells Dante that God was pleased to inspire him to focus on “the high task” of providing fair laws. This monumental effort resulted in a code that laid the foundation for legal systems throughout the Western world. In the grand tapestry of history, Justinian stands as a testament to the power of law designed to serve its people. It’s a lesson modern legislators would do well to remember: the quest for just laws is not only noble but divine.

So, was Justinian a legal designer?

Emperor Justinian aimed for a user-centric, agile, and efficient legal system with human empathy at its core—values that legal designers today strive to incorporate into contemporary systems.

And what about you?

Are you ready to start your own legal design project? Get in touch!

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