A vision of future litigation

Winton Woods wants to run a "boot camp" in Tucson, Arizona, to teach judges and lawyers how to become part of the courtroom of the future. "I want to bring those guys in and say 'Hey, you can do this'. We'll give them the confidence that they are not going to be embarrassed."

Woods, a professor at the University of Arizona, learned about the power of computers when he bought one for his children. He then realised computers could make lawyers less dependent on staff and could change the way they practise.

By appealing to private computer and telecommunications companies, he single-handedly raised $100,000 for his project. In May 1994, his courtroom of the future became a reality.

At first glance, his court seems unremarkable with wooden walls, a judge's bench, a jury box and desks for the prosecution and defence. Then he puts a laptop computer on the desk, takes out three television monitors, hits a switch and, James Bond-like, a screen descends from the ceiling.

All the screens in the courtroom show the same document from a marital litigation case. A document appears in black and white and Woods presses a button and zooms in to verify the witness' signature. He takes out an electronic pen and draws a red ring around her name. At another desk, he marks her signature in green.

Woods explains that it is simple for everyone in the courtroom to interact simultaneously with the use of the pen. Text can be taken by court reporters in real time, then selected and highlighted. All evidence, stored on CD-ROM, can be called up instantaneously and depositions taken on video can be played back with simultaneous teletext.

Many lawyers in the field agree this technology limits the amount of paper in the courtroom and reduces trial time by 25 per cent. Expert witnesses no longer need to be flown in for testimony; they can be video conferenced from their offices. These advances in technology will greatly reduce the cost of litigation.

In the UK, John Horne, executive secretary of the Bar Services and IT Committee, is a strong proponent of video conferencing in courtrooms.

"We recently used video conferencing in a medical claim for an urgent meeting between a doctor and barristers," he says.

So far, the Bar has video conferencing set up in three of its offices – London, Manchester and Birmingham.

These facilities were used in a recent case in which a Scottish farmer was suing an English waste disposal company for damage to his land. The judge was able to sit in London while a witness for the plaintiff sat just outside Glasgow.

Graham Smith, managing director of Smith Bernal, was responsible for overseeing the creation of the LiveNote software package, which allows real time transcriptions in court that can be marked and edited by lawyers

LiveNote was used in the OJ Simpson trial and is being used throughout the UK, including the hi-tech Maxwell trial.

Michael Hill QC, representing Larry Trachtenberg in the Maxwell case, is an advocate of the technology. He says: "Ad hoc hi-tech courts are nonsense. We ought to establish a protocol for permanent hi-tech courts. One requirement will be that technology doesn't intrude in the ordinary trial process."

Lord Justice Neill, chair of the ITEC Committee, agrees there needs to be a balance between technology and the court room atmosphere. When he first saw a court strewn with computer wires, he felt "the place looked like a spaghetti factory, which detracted from the solemnity of the court".

In his chambers, Justice Neill has access to law reports on CD-ROM. "It is tremendously convenient for hunting for a case one half remembers."

One issue Woods raises is "whether the virtual courtroom would accentuate existing differences between parties' resources". Smith thinks it will put firms on a more equal footing. "The technology is allowing small firms to compete with large firms," he says.

As a result of the high profile OJ Simpson trial, more people are becoming aware of the power of technology in the courtroom.

Woods describes how a Southern judge recently called him saying: "There's just one thing I wanna do Professor. I wanna be able to draw like they do in the Simpson trial."

But Woods also points out: "When the Simpson trial started there was a lot of technology, then there was less and less as the trial went on. By the end Johnny Cochran used no technology at all. He was down on his knees preaching."

Woods advocates teaching technology because he wants to facilitate the way lawyers and judges do their jobs. "The courtroom of the future has greatly enhanced the competency of the lawyer,"

But, as he is quick to point out, despite computers, lawyers will still need the same skills as always to win their cases.