The paper clip plays a variety of roles, all small, in legal history. That smallness looms large in Jay W Stein’s gripping study Something Little and Shiny on the Judicial Stage: The Paper Clip. The study, published in 1994 in the Law Library Journal, established Stein as the first and finest scholar of the effect of paper clips on the law.

Stein, a research librarian at John Marshall Law School library in Chicago, says he “attended a hearing where the judge used the paper clip to illustrate a legal point”. Finding himself suddenly, deeply fascinated by the fastener, Stein pored through legal trial records, fastidiously noting every explicit, on-the-record mention by judges, lawyers or witnesses, of paper clips. These proved more numerous than one might expect, though less than one might imagine.

“The paper clip serves impartially in all areas of the law,” he writes, “but the record shows that it appears especially often in some. In evidence cases, the ‘clipping’ function has figured prominently. In one, marking with paper clips and underlining certain passages was evidence that the plaintiff had read a letter in question. In another, a page of an exhibit bore a paper clip imprint not found on the first page.”

Sometimes, the paper clip was of even greater import. In one lawsuit, in 1967, “determination of the validity and intent of a will depended on attachment of a paper clip to make a letter a part of the will by incorporation”.

The wiry little protagonist, though usually engaged in paperwork, occasionally pokes its head into moments of high drama. “A police officer once used a paper clip to puncture a balloon that contained heroin powder,” Stein reports. “Another opened the lock on a suitcase with paper clips.”

Expert testimony occasionally briefly focuses on a paper clip, as in a case where “a psychiatrist tested eye-tracking by observing the subject’s watching a paper clip dangling on a string”.

Imprisoned criminals of a certain mind view the device as a tool, a means to freedom. “A prisoner picked a lock with a paper clip to access a sodomy plaintiff’s cell,” Stein writes. Another inmate “fashioned a sharp weapon out of a paper clip by protruding it from the end of a ballpoint pen barrel”.

In such circumstances, Stein explains, a paper clip “could qualify for regulation as ‘dangerous and deleterious’, along with pencils and dental floss”.

In other hands, a paper clip becomes dangerous in an opposite sense: a temptation to clever law officers who would push the boundary between activities they can prosecute and those they must tolerate. Typically, these are drug-related.

In one case, “because the word ‘paraphernalia’ was not defined in a village ordinance that required a store to obtain a licence and have purchasers sign the register, it might mean that the selling of paper clips next to drug-encouraging Rolling Stone magazine could trigger the requirement of the ordinance”.

“Drafters of the [law prohibiting possession of drug paraphernalia] note that criminal intent is what distinguishes a paper clip holding the pages of a memorandum from an identical clip holding a marijuana cigarette. A court of appeals opinion interpreting the Act held ordinances to be vague and overbroad in defining paraphernalia, making a smoker of a marijuana cigarette ‘potentially subject to a greater penalty for using a paper clip to finish smoking the butt, than for possession of the marijuana itself’.”

The paper clip sometimes reveals subtleties in how the law affects different layers of society.

“A workmen’s compensation board awarded a 17-year-old messenger boy for injuries sustained when he was struck in the eye by a paper clip that he was attempting to shoot out of a window; the court reasoned that the job entailed periods of enforced idleness and that youth are restless and do engage in horseplay.”

In Stein’s view, the paper clip is one of the tiny things that bind together all the workings of the legal system. “To paraphrase the legendary reliance on a horseshoe nail to win the battle: for the want of a paper clip the evidence was lost (or weak); for the want of the evidence, a strong and effective argument was lost; for the want of the effective argument, the case was lost.”

Read More