Controlling the flow of information

Courts today are in the early stages of a technological advancement, a change as revolutionary as the introduction of the stenograph in the 1930s. And as technology has matured, a growing number of courts have seen the benefits of computerising tasks previously undertaken by court personnel and trial attorneys.

By the turn of the century many courtrooms will integrate networked computer systems to allow instantaneous transcripts, rapid database searches, organisation and display of exhibits and a multitude of other features which will speed up the conduct of trials.

While it's true that most courtrooms were constructed with little or no provision for electronic display screens and speakers, modern equipment has made some allowances for the less than hospitable courtroom environment.

For example, lighting from courtroom windows can be a problem for electronic displays. In a recent case in a South Texas federal courtroom, a 67-inch rear screen projection system was installed to be viewed by judge, witness and jury. Unfortunately, glare from a window threatened to make viewing difficult for much of the day. A solution was found but the lesson to be drawn from this example is that courtrooms are not going to radically change to accommodate technology. Rather technology will make it possible for the traditional courtroom layout to remain the same.

While large-screen monitors may suit a few courtrooms, the smaller, flat panel displays will be fitted in most courts. The judge's bench, court reporter, court deputies and law clerk stations, counsel tables, the witness box and the jury box will all be equipped with high resolution, colour, flat panel displays. These lightweight devices – similar to the less sophisticated flat panel displays found on laptop computers – will be large enough to display a full page of text, yet small enough to be stowed out of sight when not in use.

All display monitors will be wired to a central computer server with attached CD-ROM drives. The server will contain or have off-site access to data relevant to the issues before the court. Keyboards and other computer control peripherals will be available for the judge, court staff, attorneys and witness. The distribution of the data to the displays will be controlled by the court deputy.

For attorneys, the electronic courtroom will alter the way litigation is prepared and tried. Certainly one of the most important contributions will be the possibility of the paperless trial. Rather than the expensive production of volumes of documents, all material will be scanned on to CD-ROM discs before trial. At the time of scanning, each document page will be assigned a unique identification number. This identification system will allow documents to be easily tracked and organised as well as provide an audit trail should the authenticity of a scanned document be questioned.

CD-ROMs offer massive database storage. For example, one CD-ROM can contain as much information as is now stored on 250 floppy discs. Using optical 'jukeboxes', where up to six CD-ROMs can be selected, attorneys will have access to tens of thousands of documents.

The introduction of CD-ROM will bring to an end the boxes and filing cabinets full of documents which occupy every bit of available space in the traditional courtroom during document-intensive cases. And time will not be wasted as paper is retrieved from the files and shuffled from counsel to counsel, from clerk to witness and then to jury. The electronic approach to document handling will make counsel more organised and help to reduce confusion – all relevant parties will be focused on the same image at the same time.

Of more benefit than the paperless trial is a networked computer courtroom system with an on-line transcription system which allows testimony to be displayed within seconds of the court reporter entering the text. Immediate use of this information can be made in cross-examination and prior testimony can be highlighted and displayed to the witness and jury during impeachment and rebuttal. The judge and courtroom staff will also be able to take advantage of this real-time court reporting function and access the same on-line or CD-ROM databases.

Other types of database research will be possible in the electronic courtroom. For example, attorneys and expert witnesses will have on-line access to their office library and files as well as on-line or CD-ROM access to legal databases. Any relevant information can be downloaded and incorporated into the attorney's evolving trial strategy.

The electronic courtroom will also usher in a new era of demonstrative exhibits. Computer graphics, animation and video in today's courts are the exception rather than the rule, in part because courts are not equipped for electronic display. However, these electronic exhibits will soon seamlessly fold into the trial presentation with no interruption of the trial process. With the technical infrastructure of networked, flat panel displays already in place, there will be no need to recess to set up equipment for videos or electronic graphics.

Presentation of exhibits will also be far more interactive. By the use of bar codes or a touch screen the attorney or expert will have the capacity to select the precise order in which material is presented and the power to interrupt sequences at any time.

Visual support for testimony will be a convergence of data and images, digitally united on the computer to produce concise images in the minds of the jury. Light pens with multiple colours will highlight exhibits or zoom in on any portion of the computer image.

Besides these trial specific features, the court will have access to email, calendar and scheduling programmes and word and data processing software designed to speed internal and external communications and improve the productivity of court staff.

However, most importantly the judge will be able to control the electronic courtroom. Paperless presentation of documents and exhibits will speed up the proceedings, maximising courtroom time. Simple switching equipment will allow the judge or courtroom deputy to control the flow of images to one or all monitors. Any exhibit can be previewed by the court before juror display monitors are activated.

The electronic courtroom will also be a financial equaliser for the litigants. With a system permanently in place, both parties will have access to the database and display technology.

But the prime beneficiaries may be the jurors. Charged with comprehending increasingly complex subject matters, the speed and efficiency of presenting information by electronic means has already demonstrated its value.

As Ohio judge Carl Rubin, of the US District Court, said after a recent paperless trial in his court: "I have noticed repeatedly that when a document is displayed on the monitors, the jurors sit up and pay attention. Such attention is far greater than that given to a document which they cannot see as it is being discussed by the attorney and the witness."

Courts are often the last to embrace technology. Hanging back means you can avoid mistakes, but computers now have a 20-year track record of compiling and presenting data.

The more recent integration of computers and multimedia technologies means that the time for the electronic courtroom is fast approaching.