The Courtroom of the Future

August 31, 1998

The Court Service is conducting a project to assess the benefits of various technologies in the courtroom. A working group has been set up by the project team to ensure that the views and experiences of the wider legal profession can be taken into account. I am representing the SCL on the working group. In addition to members from the Court Service itself, there are also members from the Law Society, the Bar Council, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Legal Aid Board, the Serious Fraud Office, the Inland Revenue and Customs & Excise.

We are intending to set up a discussion group using the SCL web site so that all SCL members have an opportunity to put their views forward. The Court Service project team are particularly keen to obtain views on how the benefits of technology in the courtroom can be measured. The technologies that are initially being considered are as follows.

  • Document imaging The documents to be used at trial are either prepared in electronic form, or scanned into a database. When counsel asks for a particular document during the trial, an operator will key in the reference number of the document, which will immediately appear on screens in front of the judge, jury and witnesses.
  • Real time transcription A stenographer transcribes the court proceedings as they happen. The text appears almost immediately on screens in front of the judge and counsel, who can make personal annotations to the text as it appears for future reference. A team of two stenographers is used to ensure that the text produced is both timely and accurate.
  • Digital audio recording Instead of the existing analogue tape recordings, a digital recording of the proceedings is made. The recording is automatically time and date stamped and an operator also supplies editorial details such as the identity of the speaker at any given time. The operator can easily ‘rewind’ to earlier passages when the judge or counsel requires.
  • Video conferencing An increasingly familiar technology to most I expect. Potential uses are to interview witnesses abroad, expert witnesses, or to hold chambers applications remotely.
  • Audio conferencing Again, this is a familiar technology. Similar uses to video conferencing and at a somewhat lower cost.

This is not a closed list. The Court Service project team are keen to receive ideas for other technologies. Practitioners are also invited to put forward cases where they think any of these technologies can be tested in live conditions. These cases could then form part of the technology trials, subject to the consent of all the parties involved in the particular case.

Document imaging is already being used in cases conducted by the Inland Revenue and the Serious Fraud Office and the initial results are promising. Some solicitors are also using document imaging long before the cases reach trial to assist, amongst other things, in the discovery process. Pilot trials using digital audio recording will be taking place during the Autumn of 1998, with video conferencing to follow in the new year. The overall timeframe for the pilot trials is two years, starting from September 1998.

I am sure that many members of SCL will have views and concerns on the uses of the technologies mentioned above, and others, in the courtroom. The first working group meeting considered briefly all the technologies and a number of common themes came through.

  • How will we know if there is any benefit? Will there be an increase in the quality of presentation of cases and how would this be measured? How can we judge whether there has been a saving of time? It is obviously impossible to go through the trial both with and without the technological input, so how can things be measured in a way that is superior to the anecdotal views that are currently held?
  • How will the technology be paid for? What are the concerns of smaller solicitor’s firms who might not be able to justify capital expenditure on special equipment for trials? After all, trial work is often a small component of a solicitor’s practice. Should the Court Service provide a stock of equipment at the courts which is, in effect, ‘rented’ by the parties for the trial?
  • What are the security implications of having sensitive documents held on computers and potentially being transmitted to practitioners over the public telecommunications infrastructure?
  • What sort of technical standards should there be? Is it preferable to have a number of competing suppliers for the hardware and software, or should there be a nominated supplier? What sort of interface does there need to be to the equipment commonly used in practitioners’ offices?

Over the coming months all SCL members will have the opportunity to make their views known and I know there will be an interesting and useful discussion of the merits of the various technologies. Our input into the working group will be well received and considered seriously as a valuable contribution. Keep an eye on the SCL web site and in this magazine for developments and information.