Sticks and snails and shaggy dog’s tales

By | 2nd February 2010

Ingenuity is the most remarkable human trait. Without it, we would not have discovered how to make fire, how to fashion tools and how to manufacture things useful to our everyday lives. We learned to stand on our hind legs which made life easier for our ancestors. We can also invent things which make our lives easier.

The terrible disaster in Haiti which dominated the news in recent weeks is not something which humans can prevent, nor it seems, accurately predict. We can only react and often that reaction is neither pretty nor particularly effective, but those who try to alleviate the suffering in that small island must be applauded.

It was, therefore, with some relief that I alighted upon three news items which, amongst the doom and gloom, caused me to smile about the ingenuity of the human race at a time when at least parts of it are sunk in understandable despair.

Some of you will have read about the interesting case of Davender Ghai from Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne. Mr Ghai is a Hindu and has asked the Court of Appeal to rule on whether he can have what is called natural cremation, the Hindu rite of open air funeral. The Court has to decide what is meant by “a building” as the relevant legislation only allows cremations in buildings suitably equipped for the purpose. Mr Ghai would be happy if there were just four walls with an opening in the roof or a roof on pillars with a suitable screen to prevent prying and sensitive eyes.

This is all too much for our Minister of Justice (how I hate that title!), Mr Straw, who is fresh from telling us how he really disapproved of the Iraq War all along but never got round to resigning his post. Now Mr Straw says that Mr Ghai’s proposals could offend public decency and/or sensibilities, though presumably not in the same way as vast swathes of the electorate were and are offended by the position he took in 2002/3 when a senior member of Blair’s Government.

Mr Ghai has asked the question and I hope he will not mind if I commend his ingenuity in constructing the argument.

Next, I came across an article on the “reef of the dead.” Yes, really! Apparently there are plans to create an artificial reef made of concrete “bereavement balls”, containing the cremated remains of the dead. The 220 yards long reef is planned for Ringstead Bay in Dorset and will provide a permanent memorial to the dead and a breeding ground for marine life. The balls are basketball sized and hollow with a plaque with the name of the person whose remains they contain. How ingenious is that? Somewhere to bury the remains of the dead and an encouragement for marine life. As the tabloids will have it, “what is not to like?”

I wonder what the pugnacious Mr Balls thinks of that. Apparently the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (known in a previously uncomplicated time as the Secretary of State for Education) has not issued a press release so his views are unknown. Perhaps he is not as sensitive as Mr Straw.

And then the armoured deep sea snail which could be the model for bullet proof vests of the future. As soon as I read about this, I found myself thinking of the Baron Mandelson of Foy in the county of Herefordshire and Hartlepool in the county of Durham, otherwise known as the Prince of Darkness! Who else is as hard skinned?!

Anyway, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology say copying the microstructure of the triple layered shell of the “scaly foot mollusc” could aid the development of protection for soldier, tank and helicopter alike. The crysomallen squamiforum was only discovered in 2003 and its layered shell helps to dissipate the mechanical energy from potentially penetrating predatory attacks. It is called Biomimetrics or design inspired by nature!

How, ingenious is that?

This is supposed to be a blog about Smart E-discovery and you may well ask what on earth all this has to do with sorting through mountains of paper and electronic documents up against a tight timetable for disclosure.

The key lies in the ingenuity of humans to fashion methods of achieving particularly useful results from unpromising beginnings. After all, who would have thought that burying human remains in the sea would encourage the growth of marine life to rejuvenate a part of our coast? Or using the attributes of a mollusc to fashion armour for a tank? Or even, fashioning an argument about buildings suitable for cremation which might satisfy the Court of Appeal, although possibly not the sensibilities of our newly delicate Minister of Justice!

I do not mean the ingenuity which insists on dealing with disclosure and review in 2010 using methods more appropriate for the 19th century, and getting the client to pay for it too and/or the court to allow recovery of the relevant costs.

I do mean the ingenuity by which research tools can now process paper and electronic documents in a quick, efficient and cost effective way, appropriate for the 21st century. Some lawyers and their clients are aware of these ingenious inventions but others are not. When all lawyers come to appreciate and embrace the technology which enables them to deal effectively with e-disclosure, a hope expressed by Lord Justice Jackson in his report last week, we will be getting somewhere!

In the meantime, we can marvel at the ingenuity of the human race (and forget about the politicians!!)