Courtroom of the Future Debate

November 1, 1999

This was the Second Debate organised by the Court Service to consider issues in respect of the use of information technology in the court room and was held on 26 July 1999. The programme included:

  • video conferencing to the Technology Court in Singapore

  • a video conferencing presentation of scanning documents by Lovell White Durrant

  • video conferencing under s 57 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998

  • audio conference for Masters’ application – documents online

  • summary by His Hon Judge Shaun Lyons.

Technology Court in Singapore

The first presentation was from Court 26 of the Singapore Subordinate Courts; also known as the bail video link court. In 1995 the Singapore Criminal Procedure was amended to allow for the appearance of accused persons who were held on remand by video conference before the court. This dealt with further remand hearings. Applications usually take no more than five minutes. Previously, transporting persons to court and back to the remand prison usually required time, manpower and security checks. Judge Lim said that there were facilities for counsel to take instructions from the clients where necessary. As a further safeguard, accused persons were not allowed to plead guilty via video link. If they indicated they wished to plead guilty then the judge would order their physical appearance in court that same day for the plea to be taken. The equipment in court included a 67″ flat screen. In addition, there were individual monitors for the judges and the court officer who operated the system as well as four 29″ monitors mounted on the ceiling for everyone in the courtroom to observe the proceedings.

Next came a presentation by Judge Foo Chee Hock on the Technology Chambers of the Subordinate Court of Singapore. There was a central display, based on a 37″ TV monitor, with the capability to display digital images. On each counsel’s bench there was a flat screen LCD monitor. Counsel could also call up images from computers. There was an electric point to plug in a laptop. The document camera enabled images of physical exhibits to be shown on the central display scheme thus avoiding the need to pass physical exhibits from person to person. The system also permitted evidence to be taken from overseas.

The second main component was a computer-based recording and transcription facility. Both audio and video could be recorded. The audio format was concurrently retrieved by a team of subscribers to produce notes of the evidence. The specially contoured flat screen monitors made reading and viewing of the screen much easier, so that it leant itself to a paperless court. Judge Hock went on to say that the electronic filing system would come on stream in the year 2000. They expected 45,000 writs to be registered online. The Technology Chambers were ready for hearing cases without any paper files or documents.

There was a visit to Courtroom 15 in the Havelock Subordinate Courts Complex, introduced by Judge Thean. This court was used for both civil and criminal matters where special audio, video or computer facilities were required. This had audio visual projection facilities and could access the Internet. There was online access to legal materials, such as pleadings and authorities.

Finally, there was a presentation by Judge Chionh which showed an internal video link for taking evidence from vulnerable witnesses.

Commenting on the effect on the efficiency of IT in the courts, Judge Magnus said that the judges find the technology courts in Singapore cut their work by 10% – 20%. It cut down the reading time because they were able to link directly to reports of decided cases and unreported judgments. The experience was that the availability of technology meant that the court list could be roughly double than in a manual court.

The Benefits of Scanning Documents for Case Preparation

Lord Justice Brooke held a dialogue with Neil Mirchandani on scanning documents for case preparation. This consisted of a practical demonstration: first, simple photocopying of the documents into the scanner, secondly, the coding process (ie fully indexing and referencing the documents so that they can then be used within a search engine). From the dialogue it was apparent that counsel working from chambers on a particular case could access the main database in the solicitors’ offices.

Graham Smith from Bird and Bird asked pertinently the stage at which solicitors should scan and code documents during the pre-trial stage. In reply, Neil Mirchandani said it was clearly an issue as to how early one started the scanning process. They tried to work from certain known parameters which had previously manifested cost savings for the client. Where a document was not specifically prepared for litigation, scanning could obviate the time taken to locate documents manually.

Video Conferencing under s 57 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998

Mary Wilkinson, the Project Manager, introduced the report of the video pilot evaluation under s 57 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. [Copies are available from Security Group, 603 Abell House, John Islip Street, London SW1P 4LH.] Mrs Wilkinson said that the s 57 proceedings were to all intents and purposes on all fours with the procedure in Singapore. They were only for preliminary hearings; a guilty plea would actually require the accused to be brought to court.

A working party of the Bar Council and the Criminal Bar Association has expressed a number of pertinent and critical questions regarding the pilot scheme. While welcoming the application of technology to the legal process, the Bar is mindful that basic minimum standards must be stated in an appropriate protocol. Accordingly, there is a requirement for a review of the process solution. For instance, the adoption of a flat plasma wall screen would give a near life-sized image of the defendant as seen in the presentation from Singapore and give the defendant a credible presence. It was not satisfactory for office equipment simply to be ported into the courtroom.

Audio Conference Before the Senior Master

Master Turner conducted a simulated Masters’ Application utilising telephone conferencing between the solicitors to the cause and bringing documents online by e-mail. This was conducted with the usual verve and good humour that one associates with the Senior Master. Following the presentation, the participants commented that this could be an expeditious way of doing things, because they could save travelling time and downtime waiting for an application to be heard. Using telecommunications they were able to do other work in the interim. However, a query was raised on the process where more than two parties were involved.

Video conferencing is now installed in room 109 in the Masters’ Corridor. This will no doubt lead to future applications being taken by desktop video conferencing. With PictureTel ‘data collaboration’ and multi-point conferencing, the Master could see all the parties to the application and concurrently have all the documents online. It is noted from the Gazette (14 July 1999) that Mr. Michael Napier, Chairman of the Law Society’s Civil Litigation Committee, has pointed out the connection problems experienced by practitioners who requested telephone conferencing facilities with the courts.

Panel Debate

An imaginative debate took place with contributions, inter alia, from Lord Saville, Sir Brian Neill, Ian Magee and Robin Miric. The mood was best exemplified by Robin Miric’s comment. He was a barrister who, having previously had no experience of applying technology in court, found himself in the Southwark technology experiment and had an immediate technology immersion. He not only survived it but is now an enthusiast. This enthusiasm was supported and echoed by Sir Brian Neill and Lord Saville. The latter said that the most cost-efficient method of combating the twin evils of delay and unnecessary expense in our justice system must be through the use of IT. IT was necessary if we were going to make the best use of the Woolf Reforms, and without IT we won’t be able to make the best of the Woolf Reforms. Lord Saville remained an optimist.

Summary Conclusion by His Hon Judge Shaun Lyons

The enthusiastic wave of IT was brought to reality in the perceptive and prescient summing up by His Honour Judge Lyons. He stressed that IT was not an end in itself. On the test card would be first ‘is it feasible’. Not only was it important to test the application of technology, but equally important was the discipline of using information technology to alter court proceedings and improve them. The second test is, ‘is it desirable’. Do we wish to see the virtual court? He felt that this could lose important dynamics such as settlement at the door of the court. The third test relates to ‘affordability’. In the s 57 presentation, cost did not feature very large. Another study would be required to quantify those prospective costs. Keith Vaz, the Minister of State at the LCD, had said in his speech that IT should be introduced only after carefully considering the issues and only if the cost can be justified by the legal professions and by the Court Service.

Perhaps the last word should go to Mr George Lim, President of the Law Society of Singapore. In response to an editorial in the Straits Times (14 May, 1999) complaining of procrastinating lawyers, he concluded in his rebuttal; ‘The lawyer’s duty is to act in the best interests of his client. As an officer of the court he also has a duty to uphold the rule of law and ensure access to justice. The legal profession welcomes change as long as it does not compromise these basic tenets’. (Straits Times, 19 May, 1999.)