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The Capital Letter goes digital

12 June 2020 - By Geoff Adlam

It’s been a fixture in New Zealand’s legal world for over forty years. Unlike most institutions that old it hasn’t really changed in the way it looks; and amazingly it’s survived in the legal information world without being delivered digitally. That’s all changed now. A new owner, a new look, new contributors, and online delivery. Many differences, but the purpose of The Capital Letter remains the same and it’s good to celebrate something which has filled an important niche in our government and justice system.

In a system where precedent rules, knowledge of developments in the law, legislation and policy is key. Back in the 1970s there were far fewer judgments, although Parliament’s liking for legislation and regulations was alive and well. Legal current awareness came from the printed Butterworths Current Law and the monthly, quarterly or annual printed resources such as the England and Empire Digest.

The Capital Letter was long identified with Barry Colman, who sold it to the new owner just a few months ago. However, it began as the brainchild of Fourth Estate Holdings Ltd, publisher and rescuer of the National Business Review and driven by Ian Grant and Reg Birchfield. An increasing plethora of Rob Muldoon-inspired regulation created the idea for a regular publication which brought it all together in a nice summary. A young lawyer just returned from completing a LLM at the University of London turned out to be the perfect person to get it started.

“I had a very free hand. Fourth Estate said you’re on a contract, this is what we want you to do, go and do it, and we’ll support it,” says Jack Hodder QC, now one of the country’s leading Queen’s Counsel. He had spent a while at the freezing works on his return before looking for a legal job.

Parliament the main objective

The first issue was in May 1978 and Jack Hodder came up with a game plan for something which was originally intended to cover just Parliament.

“But Parliament only sat for part of the year so it needed to have something to justify its existence the rest of the time. So, tragically for me, I decided we should cover cases as well – and then adopted a burden for myself for the next umpteen years because the number of cases grew substantially,” he reflects.

“In the end it was designed to cover legislation, regulations, other information from the government, the Beehive, speeches, and the courts. It was decided to personalise it to some extent by having the front page editorial to make it different to other publications that were around.”

The essence of The Capital Letter has always been there under the title: “A weekly review of administration, legislation and law”. Mr Hodder says Fourth Estates’ focus on the huge growth in regulation was the key driver and it wasn’t designed specifically for lawyers at the outset.

“I know they were originally aiming for central government, people in senior levels in government departments, people in local authorities such as the chair and town clerk, people in companies such as the company secretary and chief executive, as well as lawyers.”

Lawyers have become an important part of the readership and the case summary content has, of course, burgeoned over the years.

Jack Hodder has gone on to a distinguished career in the law. A Law Commissioner from 1986 to 1991, a partner with Chapman Tripp from 1991 to 2015, and since then practising from Shortland Chambers and Thorndon Chambers. He was one of seven people conferred with the Senior Counsel title in 2008 – the only time this has occurred, and since converted to Queen’s Counsel. His involvement with The Capital Letter ran from 1978 to 2006.

Over 950 editorials

Others have, of course been much involved over the publication’s life. Penny Pepperell took over from Jack Hodder as editor in 2006, but her involvement stretched back much further.

“Back in the early days, typing Capital Letter was a useful source of income for a law student who, when on her OE, had developed keyboard skills at the expense of British companies as a temp office worker,” she wrote in her final editorial (“over 950 of them”) on 31 March 2020.

She took over co-editorship with Jack Hodder around 1992. Wellington barrister Graham Taylor has been a key contributor almost from the beginning, was co-editor for a while with Jack Hodder and then continued (and still does) to prepare case notes. Rosaleen Taylor, Catriona MacLennan and Phil Shattky are others who have been key players in a small but productive group of The Capital Letter regulars over the decades. Former Law Society Legal Writer Tracey Cormack is now editor.

One of the key ingredients of The Capital Letter as it stayed determinedly hardcopy over all the years was its appearance. Someone holding a copy produced in 2020 would experience almost exactly the same look and feel as with a copy from 1978. Perhaps there was reassurance in the plain and never-altered typeface and design in an increasingly frantic world.

“The way The Capital Letter has been compiled over the years has changed but not its ‘look’, and the controversial Courier 10 font. Looking undeniably old fashioned at one point, it was rescued by the retro trend,” Penny Pepperell says.

“Jack never thought it would survive new technology, but it seems some people just liked the print copy. It’s just a format which worked – which is a credit to the way it was set up originally.”

“The fact that it’s survived in more or less the same format and look and feel for 42 years is an achievement,” says Jack Hodder. “I’ve been lucky to work with really interesting and good people throughout the process.

The new owner

The sale of The Capital Letter was announced in January 2020 from Barry Colman who had owned it since 1988 to Freeman, an established business publisher in the energy and extractives sectors, but new to the legal information world.

Freeman Managing Director Matt Freeman says he sees the value of The Capital Letter as being the same it has always been since 1978.

Freeman’s plans were always to take the publication digital and eventually to discontinue the hardcopy version.

“However, the onset of COVID-19 and the associated lockdown saw The Capital Letter’s long-standing printer out of action. So it sort of forced our hand and there was a mad scramble to let all subscribers know,” Matt Freeman says. “We are still producing the PDF, which is available in the Archive section on the website.”

He says development plans include a move to a real-time online format and a broadening of the editorial scope: “we have always had plans to carefully expand the editorial, a bit more about the business of law”.

Last updated on the 12th June 2020