For the most part my work has been remote; organizing and cleaning up shared drives from my kitchen table. But when I first started my position I had to go into the office to work with physical records. This was due to a litigation hold. This was an unexpected addition to my work term, but litigation holds become priority number one once they’re put into place, so the first couple months of my time at ECCC were spent working on the hold before continuing onto my other work.
A litigation hold (or legal hold) occurs when an organization is required to preserve records that may be relevant to a legal case. This applies to both physical and digital materials, and the organization may be directly involved in the case or may simply have relevant records. Oftentimes the records just need to be initially identified and held by the organization and may not actually have to be provided until a later date, if ever. But records identified as being under the legal hold must be kept safe. This means that any physical records must be identified and held separately from other records, so that they will not be modified or destroyed in the regular course of business. Digital records must be identified and held in much the same way, although metadata complicates the matter. Metadata is a vital (and vulnerable) part of the record, and as such digital documents that are under litigation hold can’t be deleted, moved, modified, or even opened – because even the act of opening the document changes the metadata and thus invalidates the authenticity and evidential value of the record.
The particular litigation hold I was working on required that the materials be placed on hold and immediately provided, which meant that we had to move quickly to not only identify relevant digital and physical materials, but to also scan each physical document and provide it within the stated deadline. This meant my supervisor and I had to go into the office.
Going into a government office right now is no mean feat, requiring multiple steps of approval. The first step was to apply through a government application, justifying why it was absolutely necessary that I had to be there in person. And before my application could even be approved I had to ensure that I had completed various training modules, including one on Covid-19 safety. Once I was approved for entry I had to do a self-check each day through the Covid-19 self-assessment app to ensure that I wasn’t exhibiting any symptoms and could safely and ethically go to the office. There was also a manual check-in system put in place by security; this was to ensure that everyone in the building was authorized to be there, and ensured that if there was a Covid-19 exposure that everyone present at the relevant time and location could be notified.
There was something rather eerie about being in a completely empty office floor. A maximum number of people were allowed on each floor at a time, and (except for one notable day where a man rounded the corner and both of us jumped alarmingly high) for the most part it was just myself and my supervisor – and we were stationed at opposite ends of the floor, mainly communicating through Microsoft Teams as per usual. At the time we only had to wear masks if we left our work area or were in the presence of other people, so for most of the day I just had my mask at the ready, but didn’t have to wear it. Protocols have now changed, and if I were to go back I would have to wear a mask the entire time I was in the building, regardless of whether another person was even on the floor with me.
I spent several days in the office going through boxes and boxes of paper documents, helping decide their relevance to the litigation hold and scanning every required page as quickly as possible. While it would have been possible to re-apply for entry into the office if necessary, we wanted to complete the in-person work as rapidly as possible to limit potential exposure. I have to admit, I enjoyed being in the office. Despite the perks of working from home, I found that I had missed the ritual of commuting to work, and quite enjoyed getting to see where I would have worked if times were different. I was one of the few new hires that was actually issued an ID card, and I even took a picture of my desk for posterity. What could have been! That being said, there was a sense of relief once I went back to working from home.
I am very lucky and my co-op term has been extended an additional four months (in part so that I can play catch-up on the work that I was unable to complete due to the litigation hold), however there is virtually no likelihood I’ll be able to go back to the office again. The only justifiable reason I would have to re-enter the office would be to fulfill another surprise litigation hold (which everyone hopes against!) and even then, as cases fluctuate and protocols become stricter, the likelihood of my being approved to enter the building becomes more and more slim.
This was my first time working in an information management capacity, and extenuating circumstances aside, it was fascinating. Being able to learn first-hand about the legal ramifications of proper (or improper) information management and seeing its practical application through the litigation hold was really eye-opening. More than anything it emphasized to me the literal evidential value of records (and the associated metadata) and the importance of preserving authenticity. Working on the hold made me appreciate the importance of proper information management even more than I had before.