What a picture

The Maxwell trial at Chichester Rents Courts provides an example of how in-court technology can be used today. After some teething problems, the much-hyped technology, which uses computers, monitors and CD-ROMs, has helped reduce the amount of paperwork used by both sides and will save a lot of the time and expense associated with lengthy fraud trials.

Computer graphics are becoming more common in UK courtrooms, especially for large fraud trials. The graphics can aid the presentation of complex matters to a judge and jury by using images which are in full colour, three-dimensions and are often animated. This leads to savings in the court time previously taken up by expert witnesses methodically answering questions from counsel.

The technology has been used in the US for a number of recent cases with much success. But the first instance of computer graphics in an English court is thought to have taken place in 1994 at Oxford Crown Court, when the Serious Fraud Office secured the conviction of Roy Wharton for fraudulent trading. Over 100 graphics were shown during the presentation of evidence and video animation was used to illustrate some transaction sequences.

The success of computer graphics is largely due to their ability to convey information in a few minutes that an expert would take hours to present.

However, there are potential pitfalls. For instance, there may be a risk that the jury will lean towards the side with the more colourful, spectacular graphics. And computer graphics can be expensive, costing well over £50,000 in complex cases – this technology may only be available to those who can afford it. For example, will it be available to litigants on legal aid?

There has been speculation that the growing use of computer graphics could lead to the disappearance of the expert witness from the courtroom, but this is unlikely for two reasons. First, there will always be situations where graphics cannot accurately convey the kind of explanation needed from an expert with years of experience in his field of work. For example, graphics can never give a professional opinion on a subject. Second, where computer graphics are being used in a trial an expert witness may be needed to explain how the images are constructed, especially to explain their factual basis.

However, the increasing use of graphics in complex cases will be a saviour for the courts. One can foresee graphics being used in the civil courts, for example in personal injury cases where a complex traffic accident can be examined, or medical negligence to show the functions of body organs.

Lord Woolf has proposed the use of technology to tackle the problems of cost, delay and complexity in the civil justice system. Computer graphics are becoming commonplace in UK civil matters, and their use will certainly grow, especially in multi-track cases.