Is this the court of tomorrow?

Bill Cannings gives a guided tour of information technology that could dispose of paper bundles in the courtroom. Bill Cannings is managing director at Valid Information Systems. A casual observer arriving at court two of Southwark Crown Court building would be forgiven for thinking that they had stepped into a Nasa control centre.

The judge's podium could be mistaken for the flight director's desk, set as it is in the centre of a raised semi-circle.

In front of the judge sits a large, high-resolution monitor and a laptop computer. Slightly below, to his left, is another large screen pointed towards the witness box.

Some 15 metres away at the extreme of the semi-circle is another raised area to which the judge can directly refer.

The row of bars across the front of this area is the first indication that this is actually a court. It is here that the six defendants sit, with screens in front of them.

Ranged between these two raised areas is what must be the most advanced array of technology yet seen in a British courtroom.

To the judge's direct left sit the court usher and systems controller. In front of and directly below the judge sits the court reporter and behind the reporter seven barristers and their assistants sit in two rows. Each pair has two laptop computers and two high-resolution screens. Each barrister has, behind them in turn, their own legal team who have replicas of the same equipment. To the right of the judge sit the members of the jury, ranked in the familiar two rows. They too have monitors in front of them.

At the rear of the court is a cordoned-off area full of equipment, used for training or demonstrating to any of the important visitors with an interest in what is going on.

Although revolutionary, these proceedings are nothing new for the providers of the technology. Valid Information Systems, responsible for the system design and implementation, has worked on many court cases in the UK and the US in the past seven years. Smith Bernal, provider of the transcription service, boasts a similar pedigree.

Valid's technology, R/KYV, is at the cutting edge of development. Remarkably for the software industry, it is produced wholly in the UK.

What is particularly unusual about this courtroom in the first instance is that the idea originates from the Crown (Inland Revenue) – the plaintiff in this case. Furthermore, the technology has been made available to all participants.

The case preparation has been undertaken by the Inland Revenue, using R/KYV and its forensic search capability and then handed over to the defence as a complete package.

Now that the case is being tried, it is in everybody's interest, especially the defendant's, that justice is done as quickly and efficiently as possible. The Inland Revenue believes that this technology enables that to happen.

All the computer hardware in court is standard, off-the-shelf, and easy to replicate. But it is the software that makes this exercise special. As the barrister is addressing the court, he is able to refer to the various documents contained in the jury bundle.

Several documents can be viewed side by side on screen, so that, for example, signatures or letter styles can be compared in minute detail. Specific sections can be enlarged so that small hand-written annotations can be clearly seen.

If a specific piece of evidence needs to be suppressed – for example a witness statement that must not be seen by the jury – the operator is able to direct images to specific sections of the court.

Any new evidence can be displayed using an overhead video camera and subsequently scanned for future use.

The prosecution barrister is able to use a number of graphical presentation systems via the R/KYV software, making explanation of complex matters to the jury much more simple. They can also manage the screen control using a mouse on an extended cable, or alternatively an infra-red device.

Transcript evidence is captured online and displayed on the laptops sitting alongside the image monitors, using LiveNote. A modem line attaches the local server to the Smith Bernal Internet site, which allows subscribers to have online access.

Before the trial, a number of counsel and lawyers expressed their reluctance to use the technology. Within days the change in attitude was quite remarkable. Where they had originally been concentrating on the paper bundle for reference, after day two, without exception, the bundle had been put aside and reference was being made to images on screen.

After just one day, lawyers with no previous experience of litigation support systems were eager to be trained, having seen the power of forensic searching, commenting, annotation and highlighting.

As the trial progressed, more users took their laptops away, enabling them to use R/KYV remotely, assess the day's proceedings and prepare themselves for the next session, certain in the knowledge that everything they needed was contained in one portable package.

What this pilot has shown is that if all the information in a case is put together in an orderly and easily understood manner, proceedings can progress more effectively.

In the past, with the amount of paper flowing around in some modern cases, it was not unknown for the jury to be looking at the wrong documents. Simply being sure that the barrister, judge, witness and jury are all looking at the same piece of paper is a major step forward.

The other and more important point is that if, in the future, trial participants were in possession of this technology at the investigation and case presentation stage, it would mean that the strengths and weaknesses of a particular case could be more easily recognised.

Savings on trial time are obvious – the next stage is to reduce the costs attributable to abortive prosecutions or defences.

This is something that has already been learned by lawyers in the commercial arena, allowing them to settle on more favourable terms for their clients, without the need and expense of going to trial.