Beijing Law Review, 2012, 3, 73-80 Published Online September 2012 ( 73
Legal Concepts and Multilingual Contexts in Digital
Daniela Tiscornia*, Maria Teresa Sagri
Institute of Legal Information Theory and Techniques (ITTIG-CNR), Italian National Research Council, Florence, Italy.
Email: *,
Received May 7th, 2012; revised June 9th, 2012; accepted June 22nd, 2012
Analysis of legal documents cannot be reduced to th eir linguistic exp r ession. When d ealing with legal texts a distinctio n
should be made between the linguistic form (normative statement) and the content (norm). Norms are conceived as the
interpreted meaning of linguistic contexts (partitions in a legal text, fragments of judicial decisions, etc). In the inter-
pretative process, legal pr actitioners make reference to an external system of concep ts that can be assumed, even if not
universal, at least shared by a large social and cultural community. As a consequence, legal interpretation and legal
conceptualization are strongly influenced by cultural, social and political factors and changes in meaning of legal con-
cepts occur within a synchronic localization in different cultures and within a diachronic evolution process of the envi-
ronment in which they are created. This dynamic nature of legal knowledge poses serious problems in communicating
legal information, and even more in the realm of digital communication, where, in order to manage knowledge across
national borders, there is a strong demand of shared vocabularies embedding a shared understanding of legal concept.
This paper aims at showing how lexical/terminological resources and conceptual structures, such as ontologies, can be
constructed by means of the innovative tools provided by ICT, like the Semantic Web languages, the computational
linguistic and the ontology engineering techniques. Such semantic resources may have a strategic role in representing
meaning evolution and in investigating social and cultural influences in linguistic uses and, as a further goal, solutions
offered by ICT for bridging the gap between form and content can also provide innovative visions of theoretical issues.
Keywords: Legal Translation; Legal Concepts; Cross-Lingua Retrieval; Multilingual Semantic Web
1. Introduction
The semantic of law has always been a “hot” topic in the
debate among legal scholars, involving critical issues like
the role of interpretation, the textuality of law and the
existence of a core set of fundamental constituents with a
stable meaning. This last point has been denied by mod-
ern legal theory, by arguing that basic notions of law as,
for instance “ownership” or “responsibility” are ques-
tionable because they are subject to historical changes
and evolutions, just like everything else is. The idea of
questioning what has been considered for many years
“given” in a certain context, might be a useful way of
finding new solutions to new problems and questions.
Since nothing is isolated but almost everything is con-
nected with global reality, changes in the world will af-
fect even old beliefs and well-established ideas and, in
addition, will produce different outcomes depending on
the previously existing context. A recently emerging ap-
proach within legal theory proposes to apply evolution-
ary science methods to law.1 Whether we agree or not
with this proposal, it demonstrates the need for applying
an evolving perspective to legal issues. This innovative
position affects the study of language as well, because
the dynamic nature of legal concepts has its counterpart
in the evolution of meaning in legal terminologies. The
traditional “univocity” ideal that assumes, in technical
domains, a strict correspondence between term and con-
cept are inadequate to fit the complexity of law, while
terminological initiatives based on a socio-cognitive ap-
proach,2 that takes into account the interaction between
language, the mind and the social world enable the dy-
namic aspects to be managed.
This paper aims at showing how lexical/termin ological
resources and conceptual structures, such as ontologies,
can be constructed by means of the innovative tools pro-
vided by ICT, like the Semantic Web languages, the
computational linguistic and the ontology engineering
techniques. Such semantic resources may have a strategic
1See, among others [1].
2“Traditional terminology believes that the concept system is to be seen as
independent from the term system, and that consequently, unlike words,
terms are context independent: the meaning of a term is a concept” [2].
*Corresponding a uthor.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. BLR
Legal Concepts and Multilingual Contexts in Digital Information
role in representing meaning evolution and in investigat-
ing social and cultural influences in linguistic uses and,
as a further goal, solutions offered by ICT for bridging
the gap between form and content can also provide in-
novative visions of theoretical issues.
The article is structured as follows: The first part (Sec-
tions 1-3) outlines the problems: the systematic complex-
ity of the regulatory world, the gaps between common
sense meanings in ordinary language and technical
meanings in legal language, the challenge of multilin-
gualism and the need for conceptual coherence at trans-
national level. The second part (Sections 4 and 5) ex-
plains how semantic technologies can offer and propose
solutions to many of the problems that have been out-
lined and, how formal data model set out by ontology
engineering can give relevant contributions to the clari-
fications of theoretical questions in the domain of lan-
guage analysis and legal theory.
2. Legal Concepts and Legal Language
Legal knowledge strictly depends on its linguistic ex-
pression: the law has to be communicated and social and
legal rules are mainly transmitted through their oral and
written expression. Even in customary law there is al-
most always a phase of verbalization that enables legal
rules to be identified or recognized; even if the law can-
not be reduced to the language that expresses it, none-
theless, it cannot escape its textual nature.
Despite the strict connection, law and language are
two autonomous but structurally similar systems: both
are endowed with rules that underlie the construction of
the system itself, guide its evolution and guarantee its
consistency. Both are conditioned by the social dimen-
sion in which they are placed, whereby they dynamically
define and fix their object in relation to a continually
evolving social context.
Let us consider the creative power of the legislator in
creating new legal entities: legislative definitions have a
constitutive force, so we can assume that, for any new
definition, a new concept is added in the legal system.
Definitions affect lexical meaning of terms in different
ways: delimiting, extending and narrowing [3]. Delimit-
ing definitions refer to lexical meaning, but they remove
some of the vagueness, for instance in Directive 2008/
104, Art.3 “worker: any person who, in the Member State
concerned, is protected as an employee under national
employment law and in accordance with national prac-
tice”. Extending definitions expand the scope of a term
with respect to its common meaning. The typical case is
that of deeming provisions: “Directive 1985/374, Art. 2:
Definition of Producer: The manufacturer of a finished
product, the producer of any raw material or the manu-
facturer of a component part and any person, who, by
putting his name, trade mark or other distinguishing fea-
ture on the product presents himself as its producer.
Without prejudice to the liability of the producer, any
person who imports into the Community a product for
sale, hire, leasing or any form of distribution in the
course of his business shall be deemed to be a producer
within the meaning of this Directive and shall be respo n-
sible as a producer.” Narrowing definitions limit the
scope of a term with respect to its common meaning. For
instance, Directive 1990/270, Art.1: “worker: any worker
as defined in Article 3 (a) of Directive 89/391 who ha-
bitually uses display screen equipment as a significant
part of his normal work”.
Beside the explicit definition of a new concept, im-
plicit changes in meaning occur within a diachronic
process in relation to the cultural, political and social
evolutions of the environment in which they are created.
To be able to grasp the mutation in the social context,
many of the legal concepts are open textured, and can
only be defined extensionally through legal instances. It
is mainly through the work of the judiciary that the
meaning of terms, like “public interest”, “public morals”,
can be dynamically modified and registered. From a
strictly semantic point of view, we cannot expect to find
any direct “referent” in reality, contrary to what happens
for concepts in natural sciences, but, instead, examples of
factual situations denoted by such kind of concepts or
conceptual reformulations built by legal interpretation.
Interpretation is the main concern in the work of legal
practitioners, that begins with the identification of the
legal sources; attorneys look for the “backing” [4] on
which to build their arguments in defence of the goal
they wish to reach, judges evaluate the arguments in the
light of the normative framework on which to found the
decision, public administrators are expected to deliver
services to citizens based on a listing of rights and duties
extracted from the norms. Even the legislator introduces
changes to the regulation of a social environment based
on an conceptual reconstruction of the existing normative
context; this pictu re enables the prediction of the innova-
tion impact of in terms of social, economic, and cultural
feed back.
All these parties carry out an operation of conceptual
and systematic reformulation3 that go es beyond the iden-
tification of the sing le norm (or set o f norms) relevant for
resolving the individual case. Only in few cases, a norm
can be conceived of as the in terpreted meaning of written
regulations that correspond to a partition in a legal text,
like articles, subsections, etc.; in legal practise, the nor-
mative context is the product of a process of reformula-
3“Legal systems have a complex structure whose internal consistency is
guaranteed by meta rules of recognition [5] that regulate the dynamic
evolution of the normative corpus (implicit and explicit rules of abro-
gation), its hierarchical organisation and relations with other legal
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. BLR
Legal Concepts and Multilingual Contexts in Digital Information 75
tion based on the interpretation of a set of logically en-
tailed linguistic expressions. Literal interpretation of se-
lected legislative statements combined with judicial opi-
nions, are furthermore integrated by teleological inter-
pretation and by extra-judicial arguments, such as value
judgements, socio-cultural factors, subjective intuitions.
The reasoning process of legal experts can be viewed as
a path requiring multiple steps: crossing recognition, re-
construction, organization, literal interpretation, concept-
tual modelling.
Therefore, can we say that legal knowledge coincides
with access to the primary sources or, in other words, can
we consider to have full knowledge of the norms by
merely accessing the legislation? As cited in [6], one of
the barriers to render the law accessible is that: “To a
worryingly large extent, statutory law is not practically
accessible today, even to the Courts whose constitutional
duty it is to interpret and enforce it. There are four prin-
cipal reasons. … First, the majority of legislation is sec-
ondary legislation. … Secondly, the volume of legisla-
tion has increased very greatly over the last 40 years …
Thirdly, on many subjects th e legislation canno t be found
in a single place, but in a patchwork of primary and sec-
ondary legislation. … Fourthly, there is no comprehen-
sive statute law database with hyperlinks which would
enable an intelligent person, by using a search engine, to
find out all the legislation on a particular topic”.
3. Multilingualism
If we move from a monolingual (and national) dimension
to a multilingual (and trans-natio n al) dimension, a further
complexity arises: legal termin ologies used in bo th Euro-
pean and non-European legal systems express not only
the legal concepts which operate in the different coun-
tries, but also reflect the deep differences existing be-
tween the various systems and the varying interpreta-
tions given by lawyers in each system. Given the struc-
tural domain specificity of legal language, we canno t talk
about “translating the law” to ascertain correspondences
between the legal terminology in various languages,
since the translational correspondence of two terms satis-
fies neither the semantic correspondence of the concepts
they denote, nor the requirements of the different legal
In the European context, multilingualism affects the
comprehensibility of legal documents from a dual point
of view: on the one hand, as already mentioned, the dif-
ficulty of establishing meaning correspondences between
concepts that reflect different legal systems (and so-
cial/cultural contexts), in order to find consistent hori-
zontal equivalences [7]. On the other, the need to guar-
antee vertical consistency between the legal language of
the national system and that of the European Union,
since European Directives provide measures that should
be implemented in national legislation. For this purpose,
any Directive contains a series of norms defining the
semantic meaning of terms contained in the acts. Mem-
ber States can either choose to implement these defini-
tions literally, or they can opt for a different definition,
for multiple definitions, or no definition at all, obviously
respecting the preconditions set by the European law. In
order to produce conceptually equivalent legislative texts
and an harmonised implementation of its rules, European
Union is inevitably forced to favour generic termino-
logical choices in its texts.
The influence of European terminology is particularly
evident in the English context. In the early period of
European legislative production the predominance of
French left a significant mark on legislative drafting,
which is more evident in common law countries.4 To
give some examples, stylistic uses in European legisla-
tive language, like, for instance, the prevalence of ab-
stract terms instead of verbs (“opportuneness”5) and for-
mal expressions, like “permit”, instead of “allow” and
“consent” instead of “agreement” are unusual in common
English. By implementing Europe an rules within the UK
legal system, the impact of the new linguistic uses pro-
duces alterations or duplications in meanings: “regula-
tion” is a kind of secondary legislation in UK legal sys-
tem; it also denotes a legal act enacted by the European
legislative bodies that has a direct binding force in
Member States. Further examples can be found in com-
mercial law, like in the 2002 Sale and Supply of Goods
Act to Consumers Regulations, where a terminological
(and conceptual) distinction is made between “warran-
ties”, offered by the seller unless the parties have com-
monly agreed otherwise; and “guarantees”, which are
mandatory and binding on the seller towards the con-
sumer when the transaction concern movables (UK im-
plementation of Directive 99/44/EC).
A further phenomenon is the importation of foreign
terminology from other legal orders, a process that often
brings with it a modification in the original meaning, due
to the process of adaptation to the normative contexts in
which the new terms are placed. Some interesting cases
concern the introduction of English terms as “copyright”
and “deregulation” into the Italian legal system. The for-
mer substitutes the term “diritto d’autore” in legal prac-
tice. In effect, on a normative level, the concept is meant
only to refer to the economic aspects of intellectual
4A possible explanation could be that in civil law countries, like in Italy
the influence of French codifications had already introduced a relevant
number of legal terms from French.
5“Further reflection on the opportuneness of non-sector specific meas-
ures such as an optional instrument in the area of European contract
law”, Communication by the Commission to the European Parliament
and the Council on “A More Coherent Contract Law—An Action Plan”
GUCE C 63-15.03.03 , Par. 4.3., p. 15.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. BLR
Legal Concepts and Multilingual Contexts in Digital Information
property and, therefore, to a more restrictive meaning
than the original one in common law systems. “Deregula-
tion” has entered into use in Italy by sub stituting the term
“delegificazione”, meaning “delegation of the law-mak-
ing power to non legislative bodies”; it has, therefore,
completely changed the original meaning (“definition of
comm on rul e s of behavi our between private part i e s ”).
A similar phenomenon related to the Asian law con-
cerns the transposition of concept expressed in Chinese
characters from Japanese legal texts to Korean and
Taiwan legal systems [8]; for example the term: 親権 in
the official English translation is “parental authority” (“a
person who exercises parental Authority holds the rights
and bears the duty to care for and educate the child”,
Japanese Civil Code, ); the transplant of the concept in
the Korean Civil Code, translated in 친권, maintains the
same meaning, as expressed by the English translation
(“parents shall have parental authority of their minor
child”, Korean Civil Act, 909 (1)). Whilst in the Taiwan
legislation the Chinese expression has assumed the
meaning of “parental right to be exercised for the best
interest of the child”, probably influenced by the UN
Convention on th e rights of the child. All those cases are
a clear demonstration of the necessity of locating linguis-
tic translations within concep tual and social contexts.
4. Accessing and Co mmunicating Legal
Information in the Digital Society
Linguistic and conceptual complexity is, in the digital
information systems, combined with technical barriers.
While the amount of public sector information made
available by governments for free access and re-use is
continuously increasing and among it legal information
has reached an unprecedented coverage, the availability
of satisfactory, complete and reliable on-line information
services for legal experts and non-experts has still to com e.
Documents and information in both structured and
non-structured form and in different formats are stored in
local and often inaccessible databases; despite several
initiatives for legal documents standardisation,6 the level
of interoperability is still low, not to mention the very
poor level of semantic information attached to documents
that prevent conceptual interconnection and sharing of
information. In searching information, most of the effort
is left to the user to query, collect and integrate the in-
formation in a time consuming search activity, to over-
come the technical barriers that keep the available legal
digital collections in a universe of separated worlds. Es-
pecially in case law, legal professionals are fully aware
of the difficulties in searching for relevant precedents
which they can use to argue their side in a case.7
The lack of a complete and cross-national legal infor-
mation system has been recognized by The European
Parliament, who on the 2008 adopted a non-legislative
Resolution on the role of the national judge in the Euro-
pean judicial system8: “... noting that complete and
up-to-date information on Community law is not avail-
able in a systematic and proper manner to many national
judges, Parliament calls on the Member States to renew
efforts in this area as a true European judicial area in
which effective judicial cooperation can take place re-
quires not only knowledge of European law, but also
mutual general knowledge of the legal systems of the
other Member States. It welcomes the Commission’s
intention to support the improved availability of national
databases on national court rulings concerning Commu-
nity law and is of the opinion that all national judges
should have access to databases containing pending ref-
erences for preliminary rulings from all Member States”.
Several examples of the crucial difficulties in manag-
ing the multilingual panorama of European Community
can be provided, demonstrating how, in several social
contexts, the terminological complexity reflects the prob-
lems of finding a methodology for bridging diversities
and harmonising legal rules. In the area of private law,
the two most famous projects, the PECL (Principles of
European Contract Law) and the PETL (Principles of
European Tort Law) include in the design of a shared
conceptual area also a proposal for the use of a standard-
ized terminology.
In criminal law, to support documents exchange in
transnational criminal proceedings, a codified multilin-
gual vocabulary for Criminal records has been defined
within the institutions of the European Criminal Records
Information System (ECRIS)9.
5. The Semantic Web Approach
The context that arises from the above considerations is
characterized by the textual dependence of legal knowl-
7On the theorical difficulties in classifing legal precedents according to
cognitive and conceptual parameters, see [9], p. 26: “The principal
contending methods of legal classification are formal classification o
legal doctrine based on logical relations among legal rules; func-
tion-based classification based on the social roles of legal rules, and
ased classification based on common rationales underlying
legal rules and decisions”.
8Eurlex document: A6-2008-0224.
9Annex A of the Council Decision 2009/316/JHA of 6 April 2009 on
the establishment of the European Criminal Records Information Sys-
tem (ECRIS) in application of Article 11 of Framework Decision
6Initiatives on adoption of XML standards for the representation o
legislative document structures and metadata have been brought on
both at national and international level in different countries in recent
years. To cite the most successful, in the U.S., Crown XML
Schema in the U.K. provide the most rich and complete datasets made
available by governments in open XML. Other initiatives in European
countries, like NIR (NormeInRete) standard in Italy or Metalex in the
etherlands have also lead to further development for a pan-african
standard (AkomaNtoso) and to the international initiative of Metalex/
CEN global interchange standard of legal sources.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. BLR
Legal Concepts and Multilingual Contexts in Digital Information 77
edge, by the heterogeneity of sources and by the lack of a
conceptual shared model. To face such complex scenario,
ICT solutions are addressed at improving technical in-
teroperability but also at achieving a consistent semantic
interoperability, by establishing a upp er “semantic layer”
where to express the conceptual interconnections among
linguistically different entities. Without semantic, a reli-
able sharing of information will re main a dream. To give
an example, in legal information systems one crucial task
is cross lingual retrieval of legal documents. As above
highlighted, cross lingual and trans-national search re-
quires that difference between lexical meanings and legal
meanings has to be made explicit also taking into account
that legal meanings are relative to each legal system.
Such kind of conceptual linking is missing in traditional
search strategies, based on the syntactical mapping of
string of characters in the query to string of characters in
documents or web pages.
The challenge of multilinguality is just one of the
goals that the Semantic Web paradigm intends to achieve.
The semantic web approach aims at capturing and at
making machine understandable the conceptual content
of digital data, by means of sets of semantic information
attached to each document expressed in machine proc-
essable formats.
In the following we outline some of computational
challenges, limiting the descrip tion of technical details to
the key aspects necessary to understand what follows,
since discussion of computational aspects are outside the
scope of this paper. Our main aim is to describe some
models for the construction of such upper conceptual
layer, outlining the different levels of expressivity and
semantic complexity according to the tasks addressed.
Under the name of “semantic technologies” an inte-
grated environment of languages, architectures and me-
thodologies is made available by ICT in order to per-
form these challenge: “The use of semantic technologies
such as RDF, ontologies, topic maps, etc. is not very
popular yet. This is remarkable as the most important
aspect of the data that is being exchanged is in fact its
linguistic meaning. Without meaning, data does not be-
come information, it is just data. Semantics gives mean-
ing to data and that is very useful”.10
Methodological choices for moving from syntactic to
semantic level concern:
the way semantic information are attached to docu-
ments (manually by legal experts or documentalists;
or by automatic classification and indexing)
the type of conceptual sources: open key-words auto-
matically selected through statistical ranking; or by
reference to an external system of concepts (con-
trolled vocabularies, classification systems, thesauri,
semantic lexicon, ontologies)
the level of granularity and formalisation of such ex-
ternal system of concepts: this cho ice mainly depends
on the task the computational applications are ex-
pected to perform: from the practical need to provide
efficient legal information systems, to support in na-
tural language processing, up to more complex tasks,
like legal knowledge representation and reasoning.
Of course, the more tools for semantic processing of
legal data are able to capture all the aspects of the legal
knowledge, the more semantic modelling is accurate: from
the identification of legal sources (connecting unique
identifiers11), to the description of the document struc-
tural elements12 to the automatic analysis of narrative
structure (detection of argumentative patterns, semantic
classification of legislative statements [10]; and finally,
tools for concept extraction and ontology learning [11].
These last tools provide or integrate external vocabular-
ies, like the one described in the next section.
5.1. Legal Taxonomies, Thesauri and Ontologies
While in medical domain several terminological and
conceptual resources are available and collected in a
open inventory13 in the domain of law such kind of gen-
eral repository doesn’t exist yet, not even local or spe-
cialized lexicons, especially not multilingual.
Terminological resources can be composed by a sim-
ple list of terms, to which definitions can be added
(glossary); when organized in taxonomic trees (classify-
cation/headings lists) and enriched by semantic relations,
they are called thesauri. The most important and used
thesaurus in Europe is Eurovoc14 the multilingual the-
saurus created by the European Union for indexing all
documents produced by European Institutions; localized
in 27 European languag es, Eurovoc is going to be adopt-
ed for indexing also national legal documents; moreover,
several projects are currently going for mapping Eurovoc
to the main European Thesauri [12]. Despite the wide
coverage and the large diffusion, legal terminology in
Eurovoc is quite poor and limited to the legal fields be-
longing to the competence of European Union. Thesauri
are based on a shallow semantic structure that only ex-
press taxonomic hierarchy and generic conceptual rela-
tion (for instance, in Euro voc “ownership” subsumes het-
erogeneous specific concepts as “private ownership” and
“acquisition of property”); as they are expected to drive
acceptable classification of information and reasonable
translation of terms in cross lingual retrieval, the organi-
zation of trees is more oriented to fit the user expected
information needs more than to express conceptual spe-
12See footnote 6.
10SPOCS, Deliverable D1.1 & D1.2, Survey of Syndication Solutions &
Multilingualism, 2010, p. 29.
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Legal Concepts and Multilingual Contexts in Digital Information
When semantic relations between terms are interpreted
as formal properties of conceptual entities, those compu-
tational artifacts are called ontologies [13]: th ey intend to
express language independent system of concepts used in
a certain domain. Depending on the type of description
they provide, ontologies can be top-level formal or
lightweight. Formal ontologies provide a language-inde-
pendent and axiomatised description of concepts, while
lightweight ontologies are poorly axiomatised and de-
scribe mainly the lexicalised form of concepts. In the
legal domain, initial efforts lead to the top-down devel-
opment of highly axiomatised formal ontologies, known
as legal core ontologies, containing few concepts which
are considered the least common denominator of legal
knowledge.15 Typical classes are: deontic positions (du-
ties, right, permission, power), artificial person ( organi-
zation, company, etc..), legal capacity, liability, delega-
tion, etc.
5.2. Semantic Models: The WordNet Model
The development of top-down ontologies was found to
be costly and slow, and alternative strategies were ex-
plored for the bottom-up development of lightweight
legal ontologies. The resulting ontologies contain far
more legal concepts, anchored in terms appearing in the
texts and based on a weak abstraction model, since the
elements (classes, properties, and individuals) of the on-
tology depend primarily on the existing contexts. In the
last years the functionalities o f automatic text minin g has
widely improved and ontology learning too ls are now the
most used means for ontology building.
These mainly consist in mining big legal textual cor-
pora in order to extract representative concepts that are
further organized in semantic models. The first and most-
ly used model for building lightweight ontologies is
WordNet [14]. WordNet, initially designed as a lexical
resource, not as a formal ontology, is organized around
the notion of a synset. A synset is a set of one or more
uninflected word forms (called wordsense) with the same
part-of-speech that can be interchanged in a certain con-
text. For example, {case, law suit} form a noun synset
because they can be used to refer to the same concept.
More precisely, each synset is a set of word-senses, since
polysemous terms are distinct in different word-senses,
e.g., {property_1, attribute, dimension} and {property_2,
belongings, holding}. Each word sense belongs to ex-
actly one synset and each word sense has exactly one
word that represents it lexically. A synset is often further
described by a gloss and is related to other synsets by
semantic relations, of which the most important are hy-
pernymy/hyponymy (between specific and more general
concepts), meronymy (between parts and wholes), and
antonymy (between semantically opposite con cepts).
The multilingual version of WordNet, EuroWordNet,
[19] is composed by monolingual autonomous lexicons,
expressing lexica of six European Languages; each syn-
set in the monolingual WordNets is linked to the others
by cross-lingual equiv alence relations to the English syn-
sets recorded by the Inter-Lingual-Index (ILI). Lan-
guage-specific synsets from different languages that are
linked to the same ILI-record are considered conceptu-
ally equivalent. Thus the network of equivalence rela-
tions (complete equivalence, near equivalence, or equi-
valence as a hyponym or hypernym) determines the in-
terconnectivity of the ind igenous WordNets.
A specialization of the Eurowordnet model for legal
terminology (LOIS16) was built by automatically select-
ing relevant terminology from parallel corpora extracted
from the European Directives in six EU languages and
integrated by terms selected from national legislation.
The emphasis was on the detection of legal conceptual
terminology, i.e. terminology that is specific to the legal
domain, as opposed to the common sense concepts of
generic WordNets.
To face the peculiarities of legal language, the Word-
Net model has been specialized by adding domain spe-
cific relations. Structural relations reflect actual systemic
connections between legal concepts: the defined as rela-
tion (stating that a term has a certain set of necessary and
sufficient condition s, turning it into a concep t with a spe-
cific meaning), the consists of relation, anchoring the
elements of the definition into a document or multiple
documents, and the implemented as relation, providing a
reference to the elements of a European definition from
the definitions in national legislation. This is especially
interesting for checking differences that may occur be-
tween concepts in Directives and concepts in national
legislation. Further drelations have been introduced, for
instance, the legal notion of functional similarity among
legal institutions, (Camera dei Deputati, Assemblée na-
tionale, Congreso de los Diputados).
The need of a stronger semantic characterization of
lexical ontologies has been emerging in recent years,
probably due to the increasing prevalence of ontology
learning vs. abstract conceptualization. Several proposals
for anchoring lexicons to foundational ontologies [21]
have proved to be effective for general purpose resources,
but too generic for specific domains like the legal one.
Recent proposals focuses on the design of modular ar-
chitecture where lexical and domain semantic can be
expressed at distinct levels, enabling multiple links to
16The LOIS data base, composed by about 35,000 concepts in six
European languages (English, German, Portuguese, Czech, and Italian,
linked by English) [20].
15Some examples include Functional Ontology of Law [15], LRI-Core
[16], Core Legal Ontology [17], LKIF-Core [18].
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. BLR
Legal Concepts and Multilingual Contexts in Digital Information 79
external domain ontologies, for instance ontological dis-
tinctions such as between “contract” as a document and
“contract” as a legal transaction can help in sense disam-
biguation and in setting cross lingual correspondences. A
terminology may r efer to different domains (for instance,
civil law and crime law), while a specific domain may
have different terminological specialization (in nation
legal systems). This issue will be further discussed in the
next section.
6. A Modular Architecture
The methodologies for conceptualization exclusively
based on the bottom-up extraction of linguistic knowl-
edge make two strong assumptions: that textual corpora
contain all the information necessary to understand the
meaning of term and that the reverse process is possible,
namely, “that the conceptual structure matches the lexi-
cal structure and the former can be deduced from the
latter” [22]. On the other hand, top-down ontological
models assume that a common cultural backg rou nd exists,
on which the main meaning commitments can be ex-
ploited and shared. We argue in favour of a multi layered
model where language and concepts are integrated, but
kept separated, to allow one (among the many) possible
perspectives of a domain description to be expressed in
an ontology, to which multiple contextualisations corre-
spond in the lexicon.
Recent Semantic Web frameworks clearly distinguish
the two layers and how they interact. This is of crucial
relevance in order to enable re-use, localization and
mapping among existing ontologies. The lexical layer
comprises [23] terms, definitions and contexts of the
domain entities that populate the ontology; terms are
“concept labels” rather than concepts, so labels can be
associated with more than one concept and a concept
may be expressed by more than one label (including
synonyms or terms in different languages). All informa-
tion about the domain, for instance proper sub-class rela-
tion, are expressed in the ontology.
This distinction would enable the ontology builder to
separate a legal concept from its lexical representation
(by simple term or compound expression) within a lin-
guistic system and in different linguistic systems. It en-
ables to distinguish among synonyms (preferred label,
alternative label) and to manage the fact that, even in
technical language like the legal one, terms can be
polysemous, and should therefore be assigned to more
than one concepts. Moreover, separating terms from
concepts will allow for a further distinction to be made
with respect to legal terms (describing domain-specific
legal notions) or lexical items, which are general lan-
guage items used in legal discourse, and provide their
real-world embedding which is not specific to the legal
Changes in one of the two (lexical and the conceptual)
layers will produce reciprocal impacts [23], the intro-
ducetion of a new legal concept will propagate changes
in its lexicalizations, not necessarily extended to all the
languages and legal syste ms, but only in those where the
new concept is introduced. For instance the introduction
of a new definition at European lev el will p rodu ce effects
in the European systems (and terminologies) only, the
transplant of a concept from one legal system to another
will affect the target terminology only. The addition of
new term in the lexical layer, (for instance the Chinese
expression of “parental authority” in the Taywan context)
will impact the conceptual layer, by duplicating the con-
cept in order to express both parental authority and pa-
rental right in the child interest.
7. Conclusions
The evolution of legal systems and the rising complexity
of reality, globalisation and specialisation in each scien-
tific field, made it clear that legal analysis cannot be
closed within itself but it must be a multi-faceted invest-
tigation aimed at explaining law and society. The use of
tools taken from other disciplines, like the use of cogni-
tive science, economics and sociology can enrich legal
research. Even Information and Communications Tech-
nologies can play a role, as the aim of computational ap-
plications is to provide communications among users from
different countries, languages and cultures; to reach this
goal, computational solutions cannot avoid to oversim-
plify the theoretical challenges, since addressed to reach
practical goals; but, on the other side, they offer rigour and
clarity in theoretic feed-back and concrete testing.
In the legal domain, th e construction of ontologies en-
counters additional theoretical barriers. If we rely on the
analytical view that legal knowledge lies entirely in the
interpretation of written sources17, the contradiction be-
tween the heterogeneity of legal systems and the need to
communicate the law is re-proposed without practical
solutions. Cultural dimension and social changes influ-
ence not only linguistic uses but also the process of con-
textual interpretation of written sources. On the extreme
opposite side, the realistic18 approach considers that only
the fundamental basic concepts of law [24] (“right”,
17The formalistic approach historically belongs to the civil law tradition
as for instance in the Italian legal system; Civil Code, Art.12 General
Provisions. Legal Interpretation—“In applying the law, no other sense
ut that which is made apparent by the meaning of the words according
to the links among them and by the intention of the legislator can be
attributed to it; if a dispute cannot be solved with a single provision,
other provisions that regulate similar cases or analogous material shall
e referred to; if there is still doubt, the decision shall be based on
general provisions in the national legal order.”
18Americanr ealism reflects the importance of the binding force of case
recedents in common law systems.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. BLR
Legal Concepts and Multilingual Contexts in Digital Information
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. BLR
“power”, “obligation”) can be considered universal, whilst
the majority of legal concepts are no more than contain-
ers of meaning, or “formants” [25] that have their refer-
ents in social rather than physical reality.
Without doubt, the conceptualisation of law uses ex-
tra-linguistic knowledge that emerges from a theoretical
debate, from a stratification of uses, from a collective or
wide agreement about the meaning. Apart from being
effective means of communication, what computer tools
can offer in term of theoretical feed back is a tight
framework, consistent collection of multiple contexts of
use, and a clear framework, by which to represent the
complex and dynamic nature of the phenomenon. They
can also offer effective guidelines for legal drafters in
order to produce more coherent and semantically consis-
tent texts.
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