Next year, the British Library will play host to a remarkable event. For the first time in history, the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta will be brought together, for a brief three-day display.
These 800-year old documents are among the most famous artefacts in the world, and mark the moment the rights of the people were asserted in law. They are exquisite and fragile, and today it seems inconceivable that this intricate tracery of black ink on crumbling sheets of paper could enshrine the first tenets of a legal system that endures centuries on.
We take it for granted that we have access to a remarkable array of historical legal documents. From the archives of the Inns of Court to shelves in chambers, every legislative change and judgment is preserved on paper. But, as the Law Gazette points out, the move to ever-more-digitised documentation threatens the preservation of legal history. Keen legal historians, suggests the Gazette’s Obiter column, could do worse than taking a trip to the Law Society’s Library, where a glass-cased exhibit displays “A 3.5-inch computer disc, a reel of magnetic tape, a Betamax cassette, 78 rpm records and some digital media cartridges of unknown format.”
Leaving aside the alarming thought that there will be some barristers practising today who have never heard of a Betamax, what links these objects is, as Obiter says, that “they are all unreadable today. In fact we haven’t a clue what’s stored on some of the devices.”
Witty as the display is, it does bring a sobering truth to mind. For centuries, almost every stage of every legal case will have been preserved in some format which could stand the test of time, from hand-written witness statements to annotated pages of bundles and briefs. These days, a signed letter is increasingly reserved for only the most important correspondence, with most relying on email. Documents are revised and saved over previous versions, with no record of earlier iterations. Whilst most documents of any importance are kept in hard copy and assiduously filed, there may yet come a time when we rely solely on digitised storage. Convenient, secure and cheap, certainly – but unlikely to safeguard a historic record for future generations. And as the Gazette says, ancient legal documents tell us about far more than legislation: an archaeologist is seeking legal parchments from the 18th century to help isolate genetic information as part of his research into agricultural history.
But the fact is that lawyers must think first of their present duties – and in the twenty-first century it is essential to utilise the full range of innovative legal IT options available if you are to offer the best possible service to clients. At Legastat, we understand the richness of the legal tradition – but also know that our clients and partners need to be at the cutting edge of legal IT. It remains to be seen whether, to quote Obiter, “In 300 years’ time, archaeologists will be filleting memory sticks for clues about the 21st century.”
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