I am the law

Third millennium, Mega City One. Judge Dredd and his Lawgiver, a gun genetically programmed to recognise his hand and controlled by his voice, dispense what passes for justice in a savage, overcrowded metropolis.

Lawbreakers are arrested, tried and sentenced on the street.

There are no courtrooms, only prisons, and citizens have no right of appeal. The judges and their hi-tech gadgets are the police force, attorney, jury and executioner rolled into one. Dredd's 'I am the law' catchphrase captures this.

Even the most avid technophile will recoil in horror from this apocalyptic vision of a future legal system – after all, Dredd is a comic character created in Brixton in the 1980s. But as Lord Justice Woolf pointed out in his recent report, information technology will be an ongoing catalyst for change and may fundamentally alter the legal system.

The legal system in 2025 will be different, but it will still be light years from Mega City One's. Judges will have more power but so will citizens. Although the police and judiciary are both developing information systems, they will remain separate.

By the year 2000, many courtrooms will be electronic, with a network of terminals linked to a central computer that will respond to voice commands. All trial exhibits will be catalogued electronically, instantly accessible and displayed on screens.

Everyone participating in the case – judge, counsel, jury, witnesses and reporters will have seats equipped with flat panel displays. Computer graphics, animation, live video links, holograms, film and tapes will be normal types of evidence seamlessly integrated into proceedings. Creating this evidence will spur the rise of an industry of legal technicians who will be bound by the rules of evidence.

Things are moving fast. By the end of this year, the Court Service has committed itself to equipping 300 judges with powerful laptop computers to help them handle increasingly heavy case loads. Soon judges on the bench will be using machines the size of a single leatherbound tome to access the law libraries of the world, which will soon be on-line or on CD-ROM.

The Woolf report Access to Justice recommends increasing the minimum specifications for these machines, so that they can handle memory-heavy applications such as teleconferencing, and voice controlled typing. The laptop PCs used in 25 pilot schemes were not powerful enough to do everything required of them.

Increasing numbers of barristers and solicitors already carry laptops. In future most of these PCs will be equipped with drives capable of reading CD-ROMs and communications software.

Oxley & Coward partner John Yates, who specialises in IT lawsuits, says: “Solicitors are increasingly using on-line services to exchange pleadings electronically. Complex cases can run to 50 pages. The rules of court oblige you to serve a paper copy, but it is becoming common practice to serve an electronic copy, to which it is much easier to add notes.”

Perhaps the greatest changes to the legal system over the next 10 years will occur behind the scenes, due to the introduction of court administration systems which are currently in development. Electronic scheduling of cases will mean judges can track cases more easily and waiting times will be reduced.

“Technology will streamline the legal system in the next five to 10 years. Beyond that, there will be fundamental changes in the way we resolve disputes and administer justice,” says Richard Susskind of Masons, and adviser to Lord Woolf.

“In the fully-fledged information society a lot of legal advice, information and guidance will be available to people through systems rather than through lawyers. These systems will be based on intelligent agents and hypertext,” he elaborates.

“If you crash your car, you will have access to a lot of road traffic law at your fingertips through your PC or TV or from terminals in public places. All aspects of our lives will be dominated by information systems and in that context there will be a a shift from traditional legal advisory services towards legal guidance services,” he says.

Quickcourt is one such application, designed by Los Angeles company North Communications. Similar self-service kiosks operate across the US, Canada and Australia. They use multimedia – voice, video, text and graphics – to give basic legal guidance.

Director of the Legal Action Group Roger Smith, a pressure group which aims to improve access to the law, particularly for the poor, has been to Scottsdale, Arizona, where a more ambitious kiosk can help you create a divorce petition in just 20 minutes.

“Three people used it in an hour and it was not successful for any of them. I believe that these things work best when placed somewhere like a library where there is a human being who mediates,” Smith explains. He sees kiosks as a kind of electronic guide through the legal process. “They have enormous potential to humanise it.”

The CCTA which advises the UK Government on IT has built prototype public terminals which could soon enable UK residents to renew a driving licence or get basic legal advice from libraries or post offices.

The Labour Party is hatching plans to create a network of 'electronic village halls' around the UK. So will this technology make solicitors in redundant?

Susskind thinks not. “Kiosks will not make lawyers obsolete. We will just have to package our services differently.

“Who else can develop these new services? I believe the kiosk idea will be rapidly superseded by home use. We won't need a dedicated machine for legal information. It is an interim step.”

Development of on-line legal services, wherever they are accessed from, will cause a major shift in what lawyers do and may take up to a third of their time. This will have a profound affect on the structure of training and the nature of the profession.

Technology is already having an increasingly dramatic impact on trial preparation and in courtrooms.

Document imaging systems, such as Showcase from Legal Technologies, are paving the way towards paperless trials, while computer aided transcription systems such as Livenote enable lawyers to see and annotate testimony as it is given.

Livenote has been used in the UK for four years and is making its US debut at the OJ Simpson trial. It is estimated to save 20 per cent of courtroom time as lawyers take fewer notes and work faster. Because it runs on Windows, it is user-friendly. To highlight text, you simply touch the screen with a light pen.

Showcase has been used in four major UK trials, notably that of Roy Wharton who was sentenced to five years for mortgage fraud after a highly complex case involving 17,000 documents. Because people did not spend time shuffling through a huge bundle of documents, much time was saved. Judge May considered that the system cut the trial time by 25 to 30 per cent as well as simplifying complex material.

Michael Hill QC who is defending in the Maxwell trial is one of a few UK barristers who have experience in using both types of software.

Preparation for the Maxwell case involved 15,000 documents being scanned on to CD-ROM. Each has a number and can be retrieved by computer in three seconds and presented in court on a network of screens.

“Scanning material onto CD-ROM saves an enormous amount of time and money. We can make our trials better by addressing the use of IT at the pre-trial stage. It is a very productive step which we have got to take quickly. An average case is hideously document-heavy. I reckon it shortens the average one-and-a-half day case to a day.

“I expect a version of Livenote will become a standard, but there are a number of question marks over both systems. We are still using them almost as toys,” says Hill.

“There are major issues in putting documents on CD-ROM and then putting them on a screen which we have to address,” he adds.

“The [Showcase] system is okay for people who can retrieve information when they want, but the jury can't. If we are going to use this technology we need to give the tribunal or jury the ability to mark and retrieve items too. This may mean that they will have to be trained in the technology before going into court.”

Hill sees animation and virtual reality being used to make events more comprehensible.

“At the moment we impose machines on a structure which is not actually designed for them. Future courts will be designed to take IT. We won't have to peer at tiny screens on the edge of a desk. As the quality of large screens improves we might have four large screens in each corner of the courtroom,” he muses.

Some people believe that we are moving towards a virtual court, where everyone, even the accused, will participate from home over video links.

“Video conferencing means we are moving away from the the need for expert witnesses to travel from abroad. Technology may mean that fewer witnesses have to actually come to court, but I still think our system of justice will be based on the bodies being there and being able to see the sweat on the brow,” concludes Hill.

Sian Kelly is a senior reporter at IBM Computer Today.