Technology in the Courtroom

December 13, 2006

Technology is now viewed as an essential part of any complex criminal or civil trial in the UK whether the transcript is appearing ‘live’ on computer screens around the hearing room, or sophisticated programmes are enabling a clearer picture of the evidence for the benefit of a jury.  In this article, I look at four of the technologies being used in courtrooms in the UK today:

Real-time Transcription

Real-time transcription is now utilised in the vast majority of complex civil or criminal trials, arbitrations or public inquiries.  Pioneered in 1993 in London with the development of LiveNote, real-time technology is now used on thousands of matters a day around the globe.

The technology is relatively simple – a computer with specific software is connected to the stenographer’s computer in court and the official record is displayed on personal PCs around the hearing room. The stenographer writes at a minimum of 180 words per minute at 98% levels of accuracy so the draft transcript is highly accurate.

In the BCCI hearing, one of the largest civil litigation matters seen in the courts of England and Wales in the last five years, real-time transcription was used by the parties to sort the 257 days of transcripts (openings lasted a year before the judge brought the hearing to an abrupt end).  The parties found that the clever thing about the software was not just the concept, but the way it addressed problems lawyers, judges and arbitrators face daily. 

1. How can I save the court time by eliminating argument over testimony?  Instant access to the official record enables everyone to see within seconds what is being said in the courtroom and the retrieval of a previous day’s testimony can also be immediate.

2. With between 180 and 220 pages of transcript each standard court sitting day, how can I manage the evidence the transcript presents?  Colour coded issue marking is a feature of real-time programmes enabling users to highlight passages of text in colours that represent issues.  Pages can then be printed out with colour highlights on them should they be needed.

3. What if I need to find out information on specific issues?  The report generating function enables users to cross reference issues with the transcripts of the case, enabling reports to be generated in seconds.

An additional advantage of real-time is the valuable assistance it can give to witnesses who are hard of hearing, a service commonly known as STT (Speech to Text).  It enables hearing impaired people to follow the court proceedings more clearly and read the questions directed at them ensuring their disability does not impede their ability to respond to questioning.

What if you are outside the courtroom? Modern communications linked to technology mean you can access transcripts remotely and even feed your comments back into the courtroom.  The ability to screen the transcript outside the courtroom enables media organisations to broadcast the court’s decision live on television – Sky Television was the first to do this with the Sion Jenkins verdicts in July 2005 and February 2006.

Document Display Systems

These systems help eliminate the need for paper bundles in the court. The beauty of such systems to technophobes is that a courtroom operator, not the user, brings the documents up using specific software such as Trial Director or Trial Pro.  You only need to instruct and observe and can also ask the operator to link the documents into your real-time transcript if you decide that would be beneficial.

Courtrooms are surveyed to take account of lighting and seating and screens and display systems are set up.  Not having a room surveyed can result in problems when the court commences as they found out four years ago in a court in California when the screen came down and blocked the judge’s view of the witness. 

Document Display Systems are now also used in smaller litigation matters and are particularly good for arbitrations where complicated plans need to be displayed and commented on.  With the ability to mark plans on touch screens around the room, barristers and witnesses can point out specific areas of interest.

Video Conferencing

Video conferencing is growing in popularity in the courts and for arbitrations and depositions. Software such as Courtroom Connect enables witnesses to be viewed over the Internet through secure links, as in large US civil litigation such as Parmalat.  Video conferencing lends itself particularly well to specific situations and I shall mention three.

Whilst you may feel at home now in the courtroom, take yourself back to the first day of your first trial and think how nervous you were.  Courtrooms can be intimidating places for children and vulnerable witnesses to give evidence.  The distress caused to such witnesses can be greatly reduced by allowing them to be in a more comfortable environment and be linked to the judge via video link.  Video conference links are already being used in courts in Northern Ireland and Hong Kong and are even being installed in Sri Lanka.

In the Republic of Ireland there is a call to stop transporting prisoners on a day-to-day basis to the courts to appear in the dock with the preference being to link them in via video conferencing.  The costs surrounding transporting violent offenders safely to the court can run into hundreds of thousands of euros, and many feel that the money could be spent more effectively elsewhere.

What if the arbitration or hearing is scheduled to sit in a dangerous location such as a war zone or area renowned for violence?  Video linking can ensure that the court can sit in a safe environment whilst being able to gather the evidence required from witnesses.

There are of course always the more unusual situations.  This summer Roman Polanski gave evidence in the RCJ via video conferencing and the reason was none of the above.  Mr. Polanski remained in Paris to give evidence as travelling to the UK would have resulted in him being arrested for sex offences.

Event Reconstruction & Presentation of Complex Evidence

This is a less common form of courtroom technology and relatively new to the UK courtroom, although that is what makes it particularly interesting.  It solves the age-old dilemma the barrister has on how to present complex and confusing evidence to a judge or jury by using computer graphics to build up a picture of scenarios.  There are various situations in which this can be used.

Sometimes, in trying to build a scene in the mind of the judge and jury, the variety of evidence and the sheer volume of evidence makes it difficult to present without confusing everyone.  This was the dilemma faced by barristers in the terrorist trials that commenced in October in front of Mr. Justice Butterfield.  The evidence collected related to a variety of people and spanned years and continents.  By using computer graphics to present the evidence, HINDSIGHT VR was able to present the evidence in a way that made it more comprehensible, illustrating the relationships between people and evidence.

Cases are not always as cut and dried as they first seem, as illustrated in a matter in Northern Ireland, where the same technology was utilised by the MOD to reconstruct events around the killing of a citizen by a soldier.  Technology was used to show different interpretations of the same evidence from a CCTV camera  – and within four minutes those in the courts leaned away from a guilty to a not guilty verdict.  A similar system was awarded the Europrix Award in the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, indeed it won the SCL IT Award in 2001.


Technology is beneficial and effective in helping users of the courtroom work more efficiently and it also helps with difficult, confusing and costly scenarios, but what about the drawbacks? 

There is always a danger that people become too complacent when technology is utilised and become too reliant on it.  Should you be taking notes?  Should you be accessing documents yourself?  Of course the answer to these questions is different for each individual in the room; the ideal technologies are those that work alongside those work methodologies with which you are familiar.

Technology can sometimes be seen as a distraction too, preventing users from focusing on the task at hand.  Display systems can take up a lot of room in the hearing room and, since barristers still tend to prefer to work from paper, they can clutter the room, especially in smaller venues.

Reliability is an important issue that should always be addressed.  Lawyers may have spent years preparing their case for trial and to have technology fail is inconvenient and costly.  Of course, situations will always arise when systems do not operate as they should.  At these times it is the customer service and technical ability of the company that provides the technology that is paramount.

People and technology are very closely interlinked and there are always questions you should ask yourself – Is the supplier properly qualified?  Has the consultant considered all your requirements?  Can you trust your supplier on price?  Do all the technologies integrate?

More Courtroom Technology?

The main barrier to people using technology is an inability to differentiate between expense and value.  There are few, if any, conclusive studies that have shown that the use of technology speeds up a trial or is economically beneficial to those using it, which makes it hard sometimes for users to justify.  There is also a huge variety of products on the market and this can be confusing for the buyer – which software should I be using and is it good value?

But, despite the disadvantages, doubts and lack of conclusive evidence, most users of technology agree that it does have a place in court and that not to embrace its use will result in litigators being left behind.  All the information points to technology becoming more widespread than ever. Our experience is of users coming back for more and repeat business is the sign of a satisfied customer.

Vicky Harris is Business Development Director of Merrill Legal Solutions.