The Rules Committee of the High Court has released its final draft of new rules on civil discovery. This is the final stage of a long-running process to update the often troublesome rules relating to discovery, in particular electronic discovery. The latest rules are available here (pdf).
For those who are lucky enough not to have been involved in civil litigation, discovery is a legal process that requires each side in the case to “discover” all relevant documents to the other side – the legal equivalent of laying your cards on the table. That doesn’t just mean documents that support your case – parties are also obliged to produce damaging documents. There are only limited grounds for refusing to disclose documents, such as legal privilege, and even then certain steps must be followed.
Unfortunately, discovery has become often a very difficult and time-consuming (and therefore expensive) part of modern commercial litigation. The general rules of discovery were laid down in the nineteenth century, when most documents could only be produced by hand or at significant cost. It was also a lot more obvious what a “document” was back then – usually ink on paper.
In recent years there has been an explosion in the amount, and type, of documents in business. The most obvious are computer documents (Word docs, spreadsheets, etc) and email. Most significant businesses are now heavily reliant on electronic communications. Documents still include paper files, faxes, and accounts, but also include modern documents such as databases, text messages, and even tweets, and huge amounts of documents can be created during the course of an ordinary day. As a result, parties to litigation are often required to handle huge volumes of documents. In large litigations I am involved in, it is common to have tens of thousands of emails and other electronic documents in play.
The discovery reform aims to modernise the rules to improve the discovery process for the benefit of litigants, and better reflect the modern realities of business and society. I have submitted on the first draft rules, and note a few highlights and changes in the proposed final draft:
- Parties must co-operate on discovery (oh, were it always that way!) and ensure “technology is used efficiently and effectively”. (8.2)
- Parties “must take all reasonable steps to preserve [relevant documents]”, including ensuring that “documents in electronic form which are potentially discoverable [be] preserved in readily retreivable form even if they would otherwise be deleted in the ordinary course of business” (8.3). This is a significant and powerful rule that imposes an express duty to preserve electronic records (see below for more details). When a dispute arises, it may be a prudent strategy to put the other party on express notice of this duty.
- The rules introduce two types of discovery – standard and tailored (8.6). Thankfully, the proposed threshhold of 200 documents for tailored discovery (previously called non-standard discovery) has been dropped. Even small commercial litigations tend to have far more than 200 documents these days!
- Parties must undertake a “reasonable search” for electronic documents, which includes some room for negotiation over whether it is or isn’t unduly costly to do so in certain cases (8.14).
- Original native files (that are discoverable) are to be provided on request (8.27(4)). While I had proposed clearer language here, the rule is still to that effect.
- Documents are to be exchanged by way of PDF where possible (sched 9, clause 1).
- The proposed requirement of chronological ordering is not mandatory – a different order may be applied if more convenient (sched 9, clause 2).
- Exchanged documents should be DRM free (well, it’s not quite as explicit as I had proposed but it’s a start) (sched 9, clause 6.8).
Duty to preserve documents
The most notable change for non-lawyers is the duty to preserve evidence, in particular electronic records. Unlike in the US, there is no tort of “spoilation of evidence” in New Zealand. There can still be serious consequences for destroying evidence, but the threshhold is unclear and there has not generally been a positive duty to preserve documents for the purposes of potential litigation.
The proposed rule 8.3 will change that. It requires a person who knows that a document is “reasonably likely” to be relevant to a legal dispute (whether or not any dispute has arisen) to take “all reasonable steps to preserve that document”. The term “knows” here is likely to be taken as meaning “ought reasonably to know”.
In particular, the rule will require that potentially relevant electronic documents “must be preserved in readily retrievable form even if they would otherwise be deleted in the ordinary course of business”.
The most obvious type of document here is email. Many businesses let their users fully manage their own emails. If a user deletes an email from their inbox, it may be impossible to recover. This new rule will require prudent businesses to ensure there are proper processes in place for retaining important emails. Under the new Limitation Act, it may be necessary to ensure retention of some records for up to 15 years, which is the duration of the new law’s “longstop” limitation period.
The proposed rules do not set out a penalty for failing to preserve documents, but a Court may make adverse findings, or even impose more serious sanctions such as contempt of court, against a party who fails to preserve documents.
While it is far from Sarbanes-Oxley, this change is welcome and good for the interests of justice.
The rules are expected to be implemented by early 2012.