Lecture Review & Podcast: “Challenges to Legal Systems in a Digital World”

March 7, 2007

To listen to the podcast of the lecture please click here

A visit to the Royal Society in Carlton House terrace is always pleasant. The exterior is traditional St James, Palladian or something similar. The interior is contrastingly modern, with the gents’ urinals especially an example of cutting-edge design – not literally I quickly and wincingly add. There are pictures of eminent scientists, of varying degrees of beauty. The cloakroom queues are, at 6:25 pm on the day of the SCL’s annual lecture, excruciatingly slow with one attendant for 200-odd IT lawyers.

The only drawback in the past has possibly been the content of the lectures, some of which have promised portentous subject matter on serious topics such as ‘the Future of Law’. I had an open mind about Professor Sir Hugh Laddie’s talk. As a QC, he virtually invented what we now call ‘search orders’ (Lord Denning in the 1975 Anton Piller case said: ‘he can claim the credit – or the responsibility – for them’). He was a very progressive judge who was always up for a bit of proactive case management. He always seemed like a decent sort of bloke. He stopped being a judge because he missed the camaraderie of law practice and is now a consultant with Rouse & Co and Professor of Intellectual Property Law at UCL.

And, as I suspected, his lecture was not portentous at all. It almost felt like an extended after-dinner speech (although I am sure his after-dinner speeches will be even more entertaining). It was relaxed, anecdotal and amusing. Not very Royal Society but all the better for that.

In preparing the topic, he looked at his computer and realised all the facilities he had available to him. He then looked at what he wanted the legal system to be: accessible, accountable, affordable and responsive to reality. And then he considered how these new facilities could help achieve those things. Some of them were not exactly challenges. Some of them were, as he admitted, in the nature of bees in bonnets.

He thought courts would be more respected if they all used LiveNote as a matter of course and at the very least were accessible by webcams. He did not want to be Judge Judy (he was a bit more equivocal about not wanting to be Judge John Deed) but he thought that the general public and overseas or busy litigants might benefit from seeing what went on in their name.

As to affordability, I am not sure that Lady Laddie’s successful experience of the small claims jurisdiction after her car was dented in a supermarket car park is necessarily of universal application but the point that good experiences with the system should be disseminated is well made.

A major concern is the explosion in case-law databases and the tendency of advocates to collect and cite every decision which has any bearing on the points being argued. He made the point that, when Law Reports were the main source of precedent, the editors of the various general and specialised series exercised a salutary control over what went in and what stayed out. Now the judges can be overburdened with the drivel of their colleagues – not his words but I think the tenor of what he was aiming to communicate.

He thought that electronic diaries were quite a good thing but made the point that the English court system does not have them. The judges in the eastern Caribbean have more facilities than our own judiciary.

Finally, he made the point that the presence on his desktop of television recording software and MP3 facilities made him consider how such tools might be used by people less scrupulous on copyright issues than his good self. This led on to thoughts about whether the present laws on copyright were really capable of matching commercial reality. Touching on this issue, it will be appreciated, amounted in such a lecture to scratching the surface of deeper waters, to opening a Pandora’s box so as to let out several Trojan horses and generally letting loose the dogs of war, so it was probably as well that the lecture stopped there.

The conclusion was that there was no part of the legal system not changed by technology and we all ought to make the best of it. A light touch at an annual lecture was much appreciated and I am very grateful to Sir Hugh for it.

Richard Harrison is a partner at Laytons

To listen to the podcast of the lecture please click here