SCL at 40: The IT Community in 1973

February 19, 2013

Our Society is 40 years old and I have had the good fortune to be involved with it during the whole of that time.  It started always with two strands: lawyers’ use of computers; and computer law.  During its earlier years the former predominated.  More recently it has become inevitable that IT law should be the more significant.  

The minutes of the early meetings apparently do not survive, so my views rely on a deteriorating memory. But I would like to describe the circumstances in which the Society was founded. 

Lawyers’ use of computers in 1973

An early issue of Computers & Law had a headline devised by Theo Ruoff ‘Computers can and do help lawyers’.  It was barely true.  The most widespread use was of a batch bureau service provided by Oyez (The Solicitors’ Law Stationery Society, Ltd) for handling accounts and time recording.  The input was despatched by post to Oyez, processed by them and the output returned immediately.  I was working for Oyez at the time and over the next few years built what I believe was the first online solicitors’ accounts system, beta-tested by Needham & James of Birmingham.  But that was in the future.  

Word processing was also in the future.  I think few if any UK lawyers used it in 1973.  It is not mentioned in the Scottish report of 1972 referred to below, and I believe it was not till the late 1970s that the word processor really took off. 

The remaining developments were public sector: HM Land Registry was in its final stages of computerising the Land Charges Registry.  This was an immense task and Theo Ruoff as Chief Land Registrar took a great deal of stick over some very minor teething problems.  He had selected a first-class IT man, Bryan Parker, and gave him his head.  Bryan devised a ground-breaking system, based on staff inputting the details in response to telephone calls.  Meanwhile Theo bearded the Minister to explain unapologetically precisely why he had awarded the contract to IBM.  Theo was tireless in trying to get lawyers to understand the system’s merits.  He stumped the country to promote the new system, and wrote a fascinating series of articles in the Solicitors’ Journal castigating conveyancers for sloppy filling in of Land Charges forms in the past.  He gleefully pointed out the number of submitted entries for people with the implausible Christian names of Barabara and Brain.  

The other area of interest was in promoting the use of word processing techniques for legislation, both at the Bill stage as and when amendments to the legislation were tabled, and after enactment when further amending legislation came into effect.  I had worked on such a system in the Province of Manitoba in Canada in the late 1960s and tried to persuade the legislative counsel here in the UK to show an interest in this.  The reaction I got was ‘Could it do French and English?’  When I enquired what that meant, I was directed to the Statute of Merton 1235 and one or two other gothic pieces of legislation, which were written in Norman French but then printed with an English translation.  If the new-fangled system could not cope with these, it was clearly of no value whatsoever.  The Statute Law Society (, founded in 1968 and happily still with us, was a vigorous promoter of the use of IT in this area.  

A driver for getting the Statutes in Force on computer was the early work on Information Retrieval (as it was called then) of legal materials.  Colin Tapper at Oxford had done some work on this as long ago as 1961, and there had been later experiments at the Atomic Energy’s Culham Laboratory by Bryan Niblett and Norman Price (later Norman Nunn-Price).  These showed that such retrieval was perfectly feasible, but they did not spawn any commercial successors at the time.  The prohibitive cost of data entry effectively stymied these developments.  It is only now that the provision of such data for retrieval purposes is a by-product of the printing and production process, that we can make use of law search facilities. (LEXIS was available in the USA from 1970 but it was several years before it had any UK material.)  

IT Law in 1973

There really was none in 1973.   

Intellectual Property: In 1973 we still had the 1956 Copyright Act.  The first case to suggest that software might attract literary copyright protection was in 1983 (Sega Enterprises v Richards [1983] FSR 73) and this preceded the amendment to the Copyright Act.  The Software Regulations appeared in 1992.  The European Patent Convention originated in 1973, but did not come into force till 1977 – also the date of our own Patents Act that recognised the Convention’s existence. 

Data Protection: The issues were being mulled over with a series of White Papers (Younger on Privacy in 1972, but Lindop on Data Protection not till 1978: Cmnd. 5012 and Cmnd. 7341 respectively)).  It was only in 1984 that we got legislation with the first Data Protection Act. 

Civil Litigation: The earliest civil litigation about a failure to deliver on an IT development contract was, I think, Mackenzie Patten & Co v British Olivetti Ltd in 1984.  Ironically the plaintiffs were a firm of solicitors.   

Crime: The Audit Commission and the Scottish Law Commission both published surveys of Computer Crime in 1987.  The Computer Misuse Act dates from 1990. 

Colin Tapper wrote what I think was the first British book on Computer Law (1st edition 1978), but, inevitably, much of it was concerned with the United States.  Colin reckoned computers had been mentioned in only 20 UK cases by then (against over 500 in the States).  The next year, 1979, also saw the first edition of my book on Computer Contracts.  Even as recently as 1999, I was able to give a series of seminars for a commercial conference organisation, packing a reasonable summary of what was then known about IT Law into three hours.  

Computers & Law began in 1974, and an early issue covered computer contracts, but I cannot find when it first published an article on an IT case or statute law.  Certainly the 4th edition of Colin Tapper’s book (1989) had no reference to Computers & Law in its extensive bibliography.  SCL’s Memorandum and Articles were changed only in 1993 to include the study of computer law.   

Law and IT Activists

The godparents of SCL might be said to include two organisations: the Statute Law Society set up in 1968, to which I have already referred, and a move in Scotland which led to the setting up in 1970 of a Scottish Legal Research Trust promoted by Lord Emslie, who became Lord President of the Court of Session about that time.  Bill Aitken, Colin Campbell and I wrote a report for the Trust on the use of IT for Law within the UK (W Aitken, C M Campbell, R S Morgan Computers for Lawyers SLCRT 1972, revised edition 1973), which was published in 1972.  The Report’s first recommendation was the setting up of a UK body.  This was SCL. 

There were also individuals who were interested in these things.  Alan Woods was the first Chairman of SCL.  He was a partner in Bird & Bird, at that time in their oak-panelled chambers in Gray’s Inn.  Alan had also been a committee member of the Statute Law Society, which met in the same oak-panelled room.  Alan was one of the nicest men I ever met.  He was also an able lawyer with plenty of common sense, an unsurpassed Chairman and (as Bird & Bird’s recently published history shows) a shrewd innovator in his own firm (see Edward Fennell The Bird & Bird Story published by Bird & Bird 2012). 

The other stalwart from these early days was Theo Ruoff.  He was not I think a founder member but joined the Society at an early date.  He retired in 1974 from being Chief Land Registrar and, apart from revising new editions of Ruoff and Roper on the Law and Practice of Registered Conveyancing, was looking for a channel for his formidable energies and abilities.  He was fond of quoting Francis Bacon as a justification for the vigour with which he supported SCL: ‘I hold every man a debtor to his profession’.  It was SCL’s good fortune to provide just what he needed.  He set about holding a series of workshops up and down the country where lawyers could meet to exchange ideas and advice.  These were tremendously successful. 

He also wrote articles for Computers & Law and published two small books: The Solicitor and the Silicon Chip Oyez Publishing Ltd 1981 and The Solicitor and the Automated Office Sweet & Maxwell 1984.  In the first of these he dared to suggest that solicitors themselves could draft their documents directly onto word-processors, rather than treating the machine as an adjunct to the typing pool.  Eventually of course this advice was adopted.  I think Nicolas Bellord’s firm (Nicolas was another founding or very early member of SCL), Witham Weld, was the first where all fee earners were their own typists.   

A third energetic promoter of the gospel was Sir Brian Neill.  SCL was fortunate in attracting the interest of members of the judiciary at an early stage.  Lord Emslie has already been mentioned.  Lord Scarman was another early supporter and briefly our first President.  But Brian went further, serving as President of SCL for very many years.  As a result, SCL has benefited much from his wisdom.  

What is SCL for?

It was Theo Ruoff who posed the question: If in the late 19th century a Society for Typewriters and the Law had been set up, would it still exist? And, if so, what would it be doing now?  We now know the answer: it would concern itself less with the use of typewriters by lawyers, and far more with the way (if any) that typewriters have required the law to develop.  Typewriters may not have produced that much of a legal revolution, but computers have and continue to do so. 

Richard Morgan is an IT Consultant and  Fellow of the British Computer Society. For many years he was Computer Officer at the two Houses of Parliament. He is a founder member and a past Chairman of SCL. He is the author with Kit Burden of Morgan & Burden on Computer Contracts, 8th edition Sweet & Maxwell 2009, and of Legal Protection of Software: A Handbook, xpl (formerly EMIS) 2002, and with Ruth Boardman of Data Protection Strategy, 2nd edition Sweet & Maxwell 2012. 

Richard wishes to express his gratitude for assistance from Roger Bickerstaff and Graham Camps, both of Bird & Bird; the Statute Law Society; and Ruth Baker (of course).