Technology on trial

Judge Fallon, senior judge at Bristol Crown Court, is a passionate believer in the merits of computers in court. He talked in 1991 about a "horse and cart to motor car" transition when describing the process of getting lawyers and judges to use computers. "The problem with the early motor car was that it was difficult to drive, had a maximum speed of 20 miles an hour, and was unreliable," he said.

Early computers had similar problems. However, largely as a result of Windows software, they are now more like an Aston Martin. They have an automatic transmission and, apart from the occasional glitch, have achieved high levels of reliability and durability.

Today's computer technology falls into two categories. First, there is technology which provides benefits to users without them being involved in the operation or manipulation of the technology. Second, there is technology which provides benefits to users, but is operated by the users.

In the first category, there are no learning curve implications for the benefits to be realised, so resistance to such technology is minimal. The second category involves hands-on usage of the computer. Both categories of technology are in use at the Maxwell trial. In the first category there is a computerised document presentation system, and in the second the lawyers are using real-time transcription software.

The document display system in use, known as the Showcase system, is provided by Legal Technologies and consists of a database of imaged documents. These documents are stored on computer and can be displayed on a network of courtroom monitors by the exhibits officer typing in the document reference. Important parts of documents, such as signatures or dates, can be blown up and highlighted either by counsel or a witness, through the use of a light pen.

The benefits of document display services are enormous: the party referring to the document can be sure that everyone, including the jury, is looking at the same document; it is possible to display documents side by side to draw comparisons; the management of bulky lever arch files of documents is eliminated; and there is a significant speeding up of the trial.

Smith Bernal's LiveNote real-time transcription technology eliminates the need for the parties to make manual notes or spend their evenings wading through pages of irrelevant transcript. Text can be searched and key passages coded to issues within a second or two of evidence being given. There are 12 LiveNote computers in use in the Maxwell trial.

A technique known as computer aided transcription (CAT) lies at the heart of the LiveNote technology. CAT enables the stenographic code created by a court reporter to be instantly translated into written English. The English text can then be transmitted immediately to an unlimited number of notebook computers. The pen computer has been a significant ingredient in the acceptance of LiveNote – even the most technophobic of judges need do no more than point and touch the screen when marking an important piece of evidence.

Showcase, which is running on a network, and LiveNote, which is loaded on individual notebook computers, are not linked in court. However, the documents being referred to in the Showcase system are accessible within the LiveNote system at the end of each day's proceedings. Documents referred to during evidence can then be easily searched for and immediately called to the screen. With the power of the modern 486 notebook computer, a lawyer can take home well in excess of 18 months' of trial testimony. By linking his notebook to a CD-ROM drive containing the trial documents, the lawyer can retrieve information, whether in text or documentary form, instantly.

Communications technology is also making a significant contribution to the Maxwell trial. A number of interested parties are connected to the live text through remote modem links. Currently, the press and a number of law firms are accessing the evidence being given in the Maxwell trial without leaving their desks. From the taxpayers' perspective, the case for this courtroom technology is irresistible. David Farrer QC, who has used both the LiveNote and Showcase technologies on a major three month trial, says: "Real-time transcription technology saves at least 20 per cent of court time by eliminating the need for lawyers and judges to make manual notes. The document display system results in a further 10 per cent time saving."

Graham Smith is chief executive at Smith Bernal International