LINE SYSTEM FOR LEARNING BANKRUPTCY LAW*
William E. Boyd, Author, Designer and Content Expert
Mohyeddin Abdulaziz, Programmer
James E. Rogers College of Law, University of Arizona
The convergence of advanced computing and communications
technology has transformed the way law is taught and practiced. From a
rather modest beginning driven by computer-assisted legal research (CALR),
we have moved inexorably to an environment in which information technology
impacts virtually every aspect of legal education and law practice. An
emerging central theme is the need to integrate education and practice
to the end of preparing law students to practice in the information age
and to enable practitioners to become life long learners who are kept current
throughout their professional careers. At the core of the transformation
is the Internet. Web-based tools have become the sine qua non of
learning and practicing law in the 21st Century. Our On Line
Bankruptcy Learning System (OBLS) is such a tool. The system is aimed at
assisting law students and law practitioners. It is an interactive system
that attempts to capture the essence of bankruptcy proceedings into image
maps that guide a learner/practitioner through the complex maze of law
and procedure which govern bankruptcy actions. The image maps are graphically-enriched
flow charts the salient pieces of which are the major events of a bankruptcy
proceeding. Each element of the flow chart is hyper-linked to other maps
or to primary and secondary materials that explain the concepts that underlay
the events. The linking is layered so as to permit a learner/practitioner
to penetrate the legal domain from a level of abstract summaries to that
of considerable depth and detail. A learner/practitioner can traverse the
bankruptcy domain in the sequence set out in the flow chart image or explore
particular events and the associated law directly. The use of visuals and
hypertext in the fashion described represents an effort to employ the power
of browser technology to turn voluminous and often seemingly unrelated
information into knowledge and hence understanding. Consequently, the OBLS
is not only an effective learning tool for bankruptcy students and practitioners
but a prototype on which systems for learning other legal subjects may
* Prepared for Law in the Information Society, an international conference to be held December 2-5, 1998 (Florence, Italy). © William E. Boyd 1998. All rights reserved.
This paper describes a work in progress (but then, what information technology-related projects are ever really done?). The objective is an on line system to assist students and practitioners to learn the law and practice associated with the often complicated United States bankruptcy process. It couples the power of hypermedia and graphics with the convenience of the world wide web (WWW). The scheme underlying the learning system is elegant in its simplicity of description but, for reasons that will be set forth, an ambitious challenge to realize. The work began several years ago when the hypertext and graphics capability had only just come to the Internet.(1)
Appendix A contains the first web page encountered by one who accesses the system. There is both a table of contents and the mandatory disclaimer recommended for such publications.(2) The first link is to some commentary prepared by the author as an introduction and overview of bankruptcy law and practice in the United States. This commentary, which is set out in Appendix B, provides some useful context for a learner.
The image map set forth in Appendix C captures the logic of the OBLS in its present form. As is explained below, this image map was the heart of the system as originally conceived and it will continue in that role in our current work. However, advances in technology, the increase in resources available on the net and a decision to revisit the project in earnest are expected to combine to move the system forward both in scope and polish. Other features of the existing and planned OBLS, such as an effective search tool that allows a learner to move around in the system using keywords, also are explored below.
II. The Essence of the OBLS and Its Underlying Logic
The OBLS is built around a central image map,(3) set out in Appendix C, that attempts to capture visually the major events and concepts associated with each of the most often used types of bankruptcy proceedings, namely, Chapter 7 (liquidation), Chapter 11 (reorganization) and Chapter 13 (rehabilitation).(4) The central image is a flowchart familiar to computer programmers. The "nodes" on the flow chart are icons that represent the major events in the bankruptcy proceeding. A learner may proceed by following the flow chart through the events in essentially chronological order or branch out, more accurately "in," as he or she may desire.
Conceptually, a learner can "visualize" what a bankruptcy proceeding "looks like" in terms of the major events and the order in which they occur. Intellectually, the central image map captures a massive amount of law and practice at a level of abstraction that permits a learner to retain the basics of a bankruptcy proceeding and in doing so begin to transform loads of complex information into usable knowledge and ultimately understanding. To assist in this learning process, there is an attempt to use the same icon to represent a particular type of event. For example, the icon for events involving litigation, such as disputes about exemptions or attempts to get relief from the stay, contain an image of a pugilist.
The hyperlinks allow a learner to penetrate to ever greater degrees of detail that constitute "layers" of information that are increasingly less abstract. Thus, a learner who clicks on the automatic stay icon is taken first to some commentary explaining the nature and scope of the stay. The contents of the commentary are themselves links to other forms of information ranging from primary law, statutes and decisions, to secondary authority, including law reviews and treatises. Embedded within each layer of information are more links to other layers of information. Of course, a learner may reverse the process to navigate to a higher level of abstraction and eventually back to the central image map.
So as to further enhance and enrich the learning experience, a user of the system can conduct a keyword search that will create a list of all the occurrences of the word(5) and the items in the list will be linked to the files that make up the resources of which the system is composed. The OBLS allows a user to access commercially-owned and operated legal data bases, such as Lexis and Westlaw, but entry into such data bases requires a password and this requirement limits the utility of the feature (and even users who have passwords must go through a cumbersome sign on process).
The principal difficulties encountered in implementing the OBLS have
been locating the needed resources in a convenient form and assuring that
the resources are kept current. The "currency" problem is not unique to
our OBLS but is exacerbated by the fact that the underlying statute has
been amended repeatedly since it was first enacted. Our attempts to deal
with the problem are explained in Part IV.
III. The OBLS in Operation
Use of the OBLS requires a standard web browser such as Netscape or
Internet Explorer. A learner may access the system from the University
of Arizona College of Law Home Page(6) or
enter the URL for the OBLS directly.(7)The
first screen a learner encounters, which is set out fully in Appendix A,
contains the following table of contents.
Most users will want to go to the Overview Commentary which is the first item in the list. Clicking on the icon for that item would take the learner to a screen that looks like this:
A learner likely then would want to link to that part of the OBLS covering a particular type of bankruptcy proceeding. Presently, only the Chapter 7 (liquidation) module is operational. Clicking on the icon for Chapter 7 shown in the earlier screen would take the learner to the following screen:
The learner may then navigate through the OBLS chronologically, following the flow chart, or branch as he or she desires. For purposes of illustration, suppose the learner wishes to go to the materials on Petitions, Schedules and Exemptions. To do so, the learner would click on the part of the image map which shows Petitions, Schedules and Exemptions in a box that appears as a filing cabinet. This image is used for any event that involves a filing. If the learner clicks on that box, he or she will be taken to a screen that appears as follows:
It will be noted that the page contains commentary explaining the process for initiating a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. In the upper left hand corner is an icon that matches the part of the central image map on which the learner clicked to get to the current page. On some screens there will be other icons that would take the learner to related materials. Here there is only a row of icons at the bottom of the screen that are for navigation purposes. The icon on the far left links back to the first page (disclaimer and table of contents). The next one to the right is the central image map for Chapter 7. Finally there is an icon labeled "Search." More about this below. The arrow boxes simply perform a back and forward function.
As earlier noted, the text contains some highlighted words or phrases
that are linked to other materials. If the learner were to click on the
embedded text "BRA §521," he or she would be taken to a screen that
looks like this:
If the user scrolls down then he or she will encounter the row of navigation icons described above. If the learner clicks on the highlighted phrase "statement of his intention," then he or she is taken to the following screen:
The screen just depicted contains an icon for a Reaffirmation. As explained earlier this icon is a link to a matter related to a debtor's statement of intention. The Reaffirmation icon is an image of a person which captures the idea of an event that involves some type of action by the debtor (here, seeking a reaffirmation agreement). A learner might explore the statement of intention matter by clicking on the highlighted embedded text or the statutory citation or he or she might investigate the matter of a reaffirmation. Often, a learner will simply click on the back arrow and return to the screen from which he or she just came and which contained the text of §521 of the bankruptcy statute. From that screen the learner likely would return to the central image map for Chapter 7 by clicking on the appropriate icon in the row of icons at the bottom of the screen. After doing so, he or she could then continue to the next major event (Appointment of a Trustee) or branch to some other event of interest.
An event of great importance that most learners would want to investigate is the automatic stay. If the learner clicks on the icon with the image of a hand in a warning position and labeled Automatic Stay then the learner would be taken to a screen that looks like this:
A learner has another important option. He or she can do a search of the OBLS. To conduct a search a learner need only click on the icon labeled "Search" and containing an image of a question mark. The following dialogue box would appear:
The learner is instructed to enter a keyword on which to base a search. Assume, for example, that the learner typed in the word "lien." Upon pressing return, the learner would see the following screen:
The learner has been presented with a list of files containing the word
"lien." The files are listed according to a statistically weighted value
with the file on the top of the list being that which has the highest "score."
By clicking an item in the list, the learner may travel to and view the
particular file. Clicking on the top item would take the learner to the
As noted in the instructions in the search dialogue box, a learner may enter more than one keyword joined by "and." For example, if the learner were to insert "claim and discharge" then he or she would see the following screen:
This quick tour has only scratched the surface of the the
OBLS, but it should have sufficed to demonstrate the impressive learning
power of the system. The considerable power of the existing system not
withstanding, there is much more to be done. The next section discusses
some of the OBLS's shortcomings and the enhancements and refinements that
are under way.
IV. Current Work
The first order of business on returning to work on the OBLS has been to add content with the hope of finishing the treatment of what is now included in the OBLS and expanding the OBLS to cover that which has always been contemplated but were matters that learner's are told are "under construction." See the Table of Contents screen in Part III. Thus, the OBLS currently deals only with Chapter 7 liquidation bankruptcies and some of the links for that part of the OBLS have yet to be completed. As the table of contents in the opening screen reveals, see again Part III, it has always been our intent to cover Chapter 11 Reorganization and Chapter 13 Rehabilitation bankruptcy proceedings and modules for these types of proceedings will be added.
Considerable work has been done on Chapter 13. That effort has been aided by advances in technology, including the fact that the more widely-used word processors, including Word Perfect, which is what has been used in this work, include hypertext and graphics capabilities. These graphics and hypertext capabilities, albeit rather "clunky" to use, allow a content expert to better envision what the actual system will look like and build "templates" for constructing the maps and pages for the finished module. In designing the Chapter 13 module, a somewhat different approach is being taken than was used with Chapter 7. Rather than one large central image map linked to various pages of commentary and statutory and other materials, the central map links at times to "mini" maps of events associated with the major event in the central map. This approach allows limiting the central map to truly major events so as to avoid the clutter that can develop if the "nodes" on that map contain too much. It also gives a learner a "look" at the events associated with a major event arranged to reflect a chronological flow or some degree of hierarchy. What results is a kind of "layering" of maps with the top layer, the central map, capturing the widest scope of the process, with the highest level of abstraction, and the maps in lower levels reducing the scope but decreasing the level of abstraction and increasing the degree of detail.
The following graphics and pages to which they are linked were created
using the Word Perfect graphics and hypertext capabilities. They should
help explain the layered mapping approach just described. The first graphic,
in Figure 1, is a chunk of the template for the central image map being
developed for the Chapter 13 module. The template is in the form of a flow
chart and each text box is a node or major event that is hyperlinked to
another map or, in the case of less complex major events, to some commentary
or statutory or other material.
Figure 1. A "Chunk" of the Template for the Central Chapter 13 Image Map
The map to which the major event is linked is in the second graphic set out in Figure 2. The events in that second graphic then are linked to statutory or other material shown in the last graphic in Figure 3.
Figure 2. Template for the "Mini" Map for the Major Event "Filing a Chapter 13"(8)
A Chapter 13 case is commenced when an eligible debtor files a Chapter 13 petition. BRA 301 and BR 1002. As with other required filings, there is an form for the Chapter 13 petition. Official Form 1. Every petition must be accompanied by the prescribed filing fee or an application for an order permitting payment of the fee in installments. [Ayers decision] BR 1006. The fee for filing a Chapter 13 bankruptcy is $130 [check]. 28 U.S.C. §1930. The number of installments may not exceed four and the last must be payable not later than 120 days after the petition is filed, except for cause, the court may extend the time of any installment but the time for payment of the last installment may not be more than 180 days after the date of the petition. BR 1006(b).
A married couple may file a joint petition. BRA 302 and Official Form 1. Where a joint petition is filed, the estates of each spouse may be jointly administered. BR 1015(b). [fee?]
Chapter 13 bankruptcies are voluntary in the sense that a Chapter 13 case may not be commenced against a debtor involuntarily. BRA 303. But cf. BRA 707(b) [and decisions]
Figure 3. The Material to Which the Event "Petition" in the Mini Map is Linked.
Perhaps the single greatest problem with the OBLS that it relies too heavily on local resources. A major reason for creating web-based systems is to tap into the immense resources available on the Internet. But, exploiting that power is easier said than done where the needed resources are not available in convenient form on the net, meaning, for the most part, in html format. One of the best sources of the statutory materials the Legal Information Institute (LII).(9) However, with regard to federal statutes the LII can post only what is made available electronically from the General Printing Office. Although the federal bankruptcy law has been amended repeatedly since it first became effective in 1979, including important changes in 1998, the latest version available from the GPO is current only through 1996. Consequently, the LII version also is only current up to 1996.
One solution to this currency problem is to maintain one's own version of the needed materials here, meaning especially, the federal bankruptcy code. As it happens, the existing OBLS in fact is linked to files maintained locally. But, maintaining files locally imposes a serious added burden on the creator of a system such as the OBLS. The approach also runs counter to the spirit and genius of the web which is to allow anyplace, anytime access to resources available remotely on an as needed basis. In the case of a federal statute, there should be a site to which a system such as the OBLS can link and on which the needed federal statute is maintained and kept up to date for use by whomever should wish access for whatever purpose. A compromise approach is to link to the dated version of the needed statute and to caution users that they must do the updating on their own. A more ambitious variation on this compromise approach would be to link to the dated version of the statute that is maintained elsewhere, here the LII, and provide updates locally. Recent work on the OBLS involves experimenting with this last approach.
The experimentation is aided by the fact that web technology has advanced to permit "framing." Framing permits the use of separate windows and even pop up window. The author has been exploring the use of framing with other on line publishing efforts. The example set out below
illustrates the use of framing in connection with an electronic book.
This framing technique could be adapted for use in the OBLS. Thus, when a learner invoked a link to a statutory provision the learner would be taken to a split screen one frame of which contained the remote version of the statute and the other which displays changes to that provision resulting from recent amendments. Specifically, the window with the existing version of the statute could display a file maintained at LII. The other window would display changes by linking to amendments available through THOMAS. THOMAS is the general purpose site on which congressional legislation resides in electronic form(10) but is not organized in such a way as to be readily incorporated into a learning system as is the version of the statute available from LII. Consequently, using the THOMAS and requires managing the materials at the local site on which the OBLS resides.
Many other points could and should be made about designing and implementing
an on line learning system, but one last enhancement being investigated
should be noted here. A true learning experience is one that is characterized
by active rather than passive participation. The OBLS has a degree of interactivity
that involves the learner beyond purely passive observation. The learner
makes choices about what to investigate and when. However, if the learner
could interact with the system in a more personal and individual way as,
for example, is possible with the better computer-assisted learning exercises
distributed by the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI)(11)
and the Law Courseware Consortium(12) the
learning experience would be greatly enriched. Progress towards permitting
such a high degree of interactivity on line is being made.(13)
But, the obstacles to true success here are significant and entail coping
with the "natural language barrier"(14)
as well as more readily available high speed and broad band-width connectivity.
As noted in the Introduction, the OBLS combines the power of the Internet and web-based publishing with hypertext and visualization techniques to produce a unique learning environment that can assist a learner to work with a complex legal process characterized by voluminous statutory and other legal materials so as to begin to know and ultimately understand how that process works. Much remains to be done, but even in its incomplete state, the OBLS stands as a prototype to guide future such creative efforts that deal with other complex legal and non-legal domains.
For greater detail, click on highlighted words, phrases
University of Arizona College of Law
Welcome to the on-line Bankruptcy course
Each "course" consists of an ordering of the major events in each of the three most
important types of bankruptcy proceedings and the law governing at each stage of each
proceeding. Expert commentary is included where appropriate. The major events are
represented graphically by "icons" that indicate whether an event is a filing, an action of
some kind, a hearing (or meeting), litigation or an adjudicatory proceeding. The events
are joined by arrows that show the usual chronological order in which the events occur.
To "plumb" the governing law and commentary, it is necessary only to click on an icon
and then, to the extent desired, on highlighted words or phrases of text that are
connected to still more law or commentary. The graphical representation of the events
and their order of occurrence is intended to present a "picture" of the bankruptcy process
associated with a particular chapter proceeding. The "hypermedia" links allow a
learner-user to examine the bankruptcy process at increasingly greater levels of detail in
the context of an organizational framework that aids understanding. To view study a
particular type of proceeding, click on the arrow icon adjacent to the chapter title of your
These electronic materials are offered only for educational purposes. They are not
intended for any other purposes anyone using them for other than educational
purposes does so at his or her own risk.
Press for a brief overview of bankruptcy in the United
Press to go to the Chapter 7 Bankruptcy course.
Press to go to the Chapter 11 Bankruptcy course.
Press to go to the Chapter 13 Bankruptcy course.
Press an index of law services around the world
For greater detail select the highlighted words, phrases
A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF BANKRUPTCY IN THE UNITED
Bankruptcy began as a creditor's remedy, but eventually evolved into a source of relief
for debtors from financial distress. The bankruptcy law in the United States was most
recently revised in the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978 (BRA), effective in 1979. The
law is found at 11 U.S.C.A. s101 et. seq. That law has been amended numerous times
since its effective date. Among the most important changes were those effected by the
so-called "consumer credit" amendments enacted in 1984. The BRA is usually re ferred
to as the "code" to distinguish it from the "act," which is its predecessor the Bankruptcy
Act of 1896. The BRA is supplemented in considerable detail by the Bankruptcy Rules.
There also are Official Forms that must be used by debtors and creditors to take various
actions and to otherwise participate in a bankruptcy proceeding. The BRA, Rules and
Forms, together with court decisions interpreting them, comprise the federal bankruptcy
Present bankruptcy law provides essentially for four types of proceedings. The most
common is a Chapter 7 or a liquidation bankruptcy. In a Chapter 7, a trustee gathers all
the debtor's assets that are not exempt by state or federal law and distributes the assets
to satisfy debts existing on the date the bankruptcy is commenced. Secured creditors
must be satisfied "off the top," meaning that they get dollar for dollar on they claims, to
the extent they hold enforceable interests in property subject to the bankruptcy. Next in
line are priority claims, which include the administrative expenses associated with the
bankruptcy and certain other special claims such as many types of taxes and unsecured
claims for wages. Finally, the claims of unsecured, non-priority claims share in whatever
assets remain on a pro rata basis. The last is the law's embodiment of one of its
ostensible purposes which is to deviate from nonbankruptcy law's acceptance of debtor
preferences among creditors by providing that creditors should share equally in a debtor's
The requirement that secured creditors, and to a lesser extent that priority claims, be
satisfied before any other claims are paid clearly undermines the equitable distribution
objective and in many bankruptcies, especially consumer bankruptcies, there may be little
or nothing for creditors generally. This situation is mitigated to some exent by the fact
that trustees (and to a much lesser degree, debtors) are armed with a range of powers
that may be used to upset a secured claim and leave the putative secured creditor with
an unsecured claim that must share in the debtor's estate along with other unsecured
However little or much creditors receive in a bankruptcy, a debtor usually is entitled to a
discharge. A discharge relieves a debtor of responsibility for most debts existing on the
date the petition is filed. Certain debts, such as those for alimony and support and most
student loan obligations, are excepted from the discharge. In rare circumstances, such as
where the debtor has committed a "bankruptcy crime," the debtor may be denied a
discharge entirely. The discharge is the law's embodiment of what is probably the most
important purpose of bankruptcy, namely, to give the debtor a "fresh start" financially.
[insert explanations for Chapters 11, 12 and 13 also 9]
1. The system was developed initially in 1996 at the request of the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI). A prototype for the system was developed as a stand alone and then moved to the web. The HTML programming was done by Tim Conery, then a Senior Systems Analyst at the University of Arizona Center for Computing Information and Technology. Since that time HTML programming has become much easier, but more sophisticated aspects of the OBLS, such as the use of frames, still require special programming skills. This special expertise is being provided by Mohyeddin Abdulaziz, the Director of Information Technology at the University of Arizona College of Law.
2. One must be increasingly careful about putting on the net what might be understood to be legal advice because a user may claim, persuasively or not, that the publisher of the web page has assumed some degree of responsibility that would not otherwise be expected. Naturally, one should exercise reasonable care to assure that information posted on a web site is accurate. But, the question of what is reasonable care with regard to a publication directed to learning, especially learning about a legal process where the law is constantly changing, is not trivial. Of course, the concern is not unique to electronic publishers (although the exposure may be greater given the sheer magnitude of the potential audience). In any event, both hard copy and electronic publishers should clearly state that the user bears ultimate responsibility for knowing the law associated with the process.
3. An image map is a graphic that to the user appears as a single image, but technologically consists of separate parts each one of which is a hyperlink.
4. The statute governing these proceedings is known as the Bankruptcy Reform Act (BRA) or "Code," 11 U.S.C. § 101 et seq. (1996), which was effective in 1979. There are other proceedings, including Chapter 12 (Family Farmers), which is modeled after Chapter 13, and Chapter 9, which governs municipal (essentially governmental) bankruptcies, and is a creature onto itself. There are no present plans to include either of these chapters in the OBLS.
5. As is explained in Part III, the search engine has some limited Boolean capability in that a user may join keywords.
8. The events associated with the major event of filing are shown as a list but will be translated into an image map with appropriate images for each event associated with the major event.
11. CALI is a consortium of over 170 law schools. Its mission is to develop and distribute computer-assisted legal educational materials. The CALI library of CAI lessons now numbers over 100. Information about CALI and the library of lessons is available at:
12. The Law Courseware Consortium is a consortium of law schools in the United Kingdom. It is headquartered at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England. Information about the LCC can be obtained on line from email@example.com.
13. CALI has developed software called WEBOLIS the purpose of which is to allow computer-assisted instructional lessons to be run on the web. For information about this software visit the CALI web site at: http://cali.org.
14. The author has long been involved in the development of computer-based interactive learning experiences. Some of his work can be examined in on line publications available through the University of Arizona Law College home page at: http://law.arizona.edu.