IBM-UBC Cooperative Project in Law and Computers

The emergence of computers changed the legal field immensely, bringing easily searchable databases and drastically altering legal research methods. The UBC-IBM Cooperative Project in Law and Computers, established in 1985, was the first project to explore the application of technology to the legal profession and the delivery of legal services in Canada.

Initially a small project, funding by the University of British Columbia as well as the Law Foundation of British Columbia, established a computer laboratory in the library to familiarized students with the use of computers. Within a year, demand couldn't be met by the resources available. The project contacted academics and schools across Canada and realized that substantial resources were necessary to create a project with the potential for a more meaningful impact. At the time, IBM Canada was soliciting proposals from within UBC for a cooperative project with the university.

Partnering with IBM shaped the project and determined its objectives.The company was very interested in potential public benefits from the project, and less so on the problems that would likely be solved by the ordinary commercial marketplace. The focus of the project shifted to the judiciary and access to justice. As well, there was a shift to focusing on a short-term initiative that would hopefully have measurable outcomes and could adapt with quickly changing technology.

The partnership with IBM addressed the resource issues of the project, and ultimately lead to the numerous positive outcomes of the project. IBM donated approximately $2.2 million dollars worth of computing equipment, software and consulting services, including personal computers and a 9375 model 60 mainframe. The University contributed an estimated $1.6 million in technical staff support, physical space and administrative support. The project was incredibly collaborative, and cash support was given by numerous organizations, including the federal Department of Justice, federal Department of Communications, the Attorney General of BC, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

The objectives for the project were broad, covering everything from educating the judiciary to familiarizing students with computing technology. One component of the project was compiling a sentencing database that could be searched to help build consistency in sentencing length when considering aggravating and mitigating factors. Another aspect supported the work of the law clinic by installing a file management system to better track cases and clinicians, and increased work processing ability reduced delays in client communications.

For a reflection on the early years of the project, read this UBC Law Review article by Professor Robert T Franson.