Secret E-Diary

A digital case revives tragic memories

'It is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lighteneed the day's toil of any human being' – John Stuart Mill

My first laptop computer was a beautifully designed Olivetti. I remember it now with terrible guilt. You see, I killed it.

I had been drafting a Scott Schedule for a building dispute before the Official Referee. I was hardly a civil lawyer but I was persuaded to take on this case by a solicitor who sent me motoring work and who had himself perhaps unwisely accepted instructions in this dispute. It involved a hospital consultant who was an amateur builder in a small way. He extended a house for a colleague at work and I certainly thought it was of very high quality. Sadly, it had also been painstaking and, as a result, extremely slow. An inevitable falling out followed and so they went to law.

I had heard of the Official Referee before as a specialist technical judge and I also knew what a Scott Schedule was. It was a chart of all the things that had been agreed to be done in the contract and a column for each side to say whether they had been completed or not. Before computers, drafting a Scott Schedule was a nightmare. Four tenants in our basement with my huge sheet of paper held it down whilst I darted around sellotaping entries in the columns. Any major editing caused havoc and they kept spilling colas, coffee and crisp particles all over it.

Computers changed all that. That was why, during the three long years this case took to come to trial, I purchased the Lamborghini of electronic writers, my Olivetti. At home, at 3am, I put the final touches to my completed electronic schedule and feel asleep at my desk. Thus I missed the little warning light, in an attractive scarlet, that flashed intermittently to tell me the mains cable had come out of the wall socket. And eventually it flickered out altogether. This was before documents were automatically saved. When I awoke I first thought it was just sleeping, as I had been. It only dawned on me in slow stages that the work I had spent months on and had just finished that night had gone, and gone forever.

I seized my beautiful machine and dashed it against the wall. Not content with that, I opened my third floor sash window and threw it to the pavement below. Only later did I grieve for the poor thing.

I had forgotten about this until a very nice young junior, Luke Brampton, in our Chambers, knocked on my door last week whilst I was having a chinwag with Paddy Corkhill. He was bringing the exceedingly glad tidings that I was to lead him in a long fraud case beautifully situated in central London. I nodded benevolently and told him we would have great fun. I looked rather anxiously at the limited space in my room. ‘I suppose there are hundreds of files,’ I said. ‘None,’ he replied. ‘None?’ I echoed. ‘Has the prosecuting authority been extremely dilatory?’ ‘No, William,’ he laughed, ‘it’s digital. You access it on your laptop and we all have iPads in court, including the jury.’ I tried to look technical and confident, but the effect it had on Paddy was alarming. He started choking and spat his coffee back into the cup. ‘My God,’ he said, ‘it’s like virtual sex, it’s meaningless unless you have got the real thing in front of you.’ Before either of us could respond again, he went into one of his well-known rants. ‘How can you write on documents? How do you keep your fingers in the page whilst you cross-reference with a statement or another exhibit? How do you scribble on a post-it note?’ Luke laughed again: ‘You can do all those things, Paddy, and more. It saves huge amounts of time.’ I looked knowingly and benevolently on the side of progress. I did not want any suggestions that I might not be the right man for this digital legal extravaganza.

Paddy remained unpersuaded. ‘Saves time! Poppycock! You’ll waste more time saving the time on a computer than you’d ever have wasted with good old paper. No, it’s all about money. It always is.’ I looked at the clock. Mmm… Just enough time before lunch to pop to a computer shop and get a knowing young person to make sure I had the latest of everything and at least knew how to switch it on. I feared that was going to be all about money, too.

William Byfield Gutteridge Chambers. William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious.