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Opinion Courts such as Alberta’s are going paperless – but without blockchain, we’re still locked in the past

Ethan Lou’s first book, Once a Bitcoin Miner, is forthcoming from ECW Press.

It’s been half a century since humankind landed on the moon. We have captured an image of a black hole, figured out a way to edit genes and gathered in the millions around myriad kinds of screens to watch Game of Thrones, a lavishly fantastical TV series that cost US$15-million an episode to make.

Society has dramatically changed in so many ways, and yet somehow, our courts – these vital, society-defining institutions – still operate using dead trees.

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Our current system of court rulings and judgments comes with high costs and inefficiency. It is a blight on the sacredness of legal documents, which are supposed to be the most reliable historical records humanity has.

The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench announced plans to go “paperless” in a report this month. The move is not only long overdue, but should also be emulated by all judicial bodies across the country.

But they should go even further – and we have a way, with blockchain.

That technology provides a secure method to ensure that a bitcoin cannot be copied or forged. Blockchain is a kind of ledger, tracking who owns which bitcoin, and it cannot be tampered with. You can add a record, for example, to show half a bitcoin has passed from Alice to Bob, but you cannot modify that record to unmake the transaction. It is thus the perfect system for managing legal files. The courts should consider adopting this system; in fact, Iron Mountain, the very company to which Alberta outsources court-records management, sings its praises on its website.

Digital filing systems are expensive. And blockchain, a technology still in its infancy, can be expensive to develop. Yes, change always carries an upfront cost. But aside from the obvious – paper records are hard to access remotely – the slow-bleeding price of stagnation is worse. In the Alberta report, one of the reasons cited for going paperless was that dead trees exact their own heavy toll. The province charges $10 just to perform a search and $1 a page for copying.

There are other costs, too. Right now, current digital-file-management services prevent tampering by having a third party – often a human, or a team of them – acting as a central authority to oversee the system. Blockchain accomplishes the same, but eliminates that third party.

Some provinces may have more filing systems. Some, such as British Columbia, have even partly digitized their files. But Alberta is no outlier in the cost and inefficiency that comes with paper. In my career as a journalist, I spent a lot of time in courthouses across the country, looking up all sorts of files and paying all sorts of fees that should be eliminated.

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Once, a provincial court employee got irritated when I, in a bid to save money, took notes instead of making copies. Department rules say the employee has to watch me the whole time I examine the file, and in his view, he had better things to do with his day. Why pay $10 just for a search? Part of it no doubt pays for somebody to do nothing but watch you.

And it also produces potential errors. Another time, I received a folder of documents for a court case, but there was a file from a different lawsuit inside – a lawsuit whose docket number was off by one digit. It had been placed in the wrong folder. Someone requesting the folder for the other case could have missed important information and be none the wiser. Who knows how long that file had sat in the wrong folder, or how many others there are?

Paper records also pile up fast, and so they are culled. I was once told that because 10 years had passed, the files I requested had all been deleted. Why did this man say another owed him money, and why did the court uphold it? We will never know. That might be minor, but imagine that for bigger cases with more public interest.

Our current treatment of legal files is in no way reflective of the respect they deserve. Court documents are the closest we can get to indisputable accounts of the past because their truth has been ascertained by judges and juries.

Court files are the world’s memories. Without them, as Archmaester Ebrose says in Game of Thrones, humanity “would be little better than dogs.” And blockchain is the key to making sure that fate never befalls us.

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