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Comment: Lawyers and maths – what’s the problem? asks Andrew Haslam

Added on the 21st Dec 2015 at 9:59 am
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On Friday (18th December) the BBC reported that there was a fault in a Ministry of Justice spreadsheet that has been used for the past 20 months by divorcing couples to assess their net worth. The problem was only with certain versions of the form but the error was missed by clients, lawyers and the MoJ alike.

The original BBC article is here, with the follow-up story here. In a way I can understand the problem being missed by “litigants in person” that is the normal person on the high street who is carrying out a divorce themselves, but why wasn’t this mistake picked up by the professionals?

It’s not as if the MoJ doesn’t have “previous” in this area. In June 2013 when they provided a spreadsheet for calculating the Precedent H, the assessment was “Do not under any circumstances attempt to use the Precedent H that is on the MoJ website; it is riddled with errors and incorrect formulae.”

So why are lawyers so bad at maths and does it matter? (And I will take the argument that the pen-pushers at the MoJ are civil servants and not lawyers, but that does not excuse those divorce lawyers who have been blindly accepting the wrong figures for the past 20 months.)

I run a one day introduction to eDisclosure course and when we get to a certain point in the workshop session I go around the room and ask the lawyers present when was the last time they studied mathematics. For the vast majority of them it was 16 when they completed their GCSE’s (or O Levels for the older ones), after that they studied mainly non-science topics, albeit with some occasional mandatory exposure to accounts during their legal training. Either by nature or nurture they normally don’t like spreadsheets and their eyes glaze when you start pushing them under their nose. This isn’t a criticism, it’s just the way that they are, just as my heart would shrink if you gave me an 3,000 word assignment to contrast and compare English Literature.

So why does this matter, apart from their tendency not to notice broken spreadsheets? From my area of interest of eDisclosure we are heavily promoting the use of Computer Assisted Review (CAR). In order to competently use the technology, lawyers have understand, argue and agree statistical concepts such as precision, accuracy and recall. I have conveyed a working understanding of these to a number of practitioners, so I know it can be done, but do not underestimate the difficulty.

No easy answer to this one (not even 42, which “as any fule kno” is the answer to Life, The Universe and Everything) Just be aware that there is this blind spot and you need to have plans to work around it.

Andrew Haslam can be contacted at andrew.haslam@allvision.co.uk

3 Comments

  1. Jonathan Maas says:

    Andrew is, of course, right in his generalisation. However, the reverse generalisation is equally true: lawyers snootily attach no credence to anything written or spoken that is grammatically incorrect or insufficiently succinct in its delivery. Indeed, some actively hunt first for proof of the messenger’s linguistic inability in order to discount automatically without consideration the message contained therein. They believe that if you can’t say it properly it’s not worth listening to. This inverted snobbery is as rife as it is self-damaging.

    Andrew has polled lawyers attending his excellent eDisclosure course (I have been on it) to ask them when they last studied maths. I wonder what the result would be were he to poll the techies to ask them when they last read “Eats, Shoots & Leaves”!

    This obvious disfunction between two groups who really need to be working closely together is exactly why I am strongly of the view that we desperately need knowledgeable and respected Special Masters appointed as impartial representatives of the courts. Their function would be to guide and adjudicate between the parties as appropriate on disclosure-heavy matters or matters where disclosure involves overly complicated technical issues. We simply cannot continue to allow the inmates to run the asylum.

Any Comment?