Cutting down the paperwork

Roger Pearson finds courtroom technology comes into its own dealing with expert evidence

New technology is increasingly evident in our courts. with laptops fast taking over from counsel's notebooks in more complex cases.

One court at the High Court where Lloyd's litigation has been under way could at times be likened to a computer showroom with its array of laptops and PCs.

But lawyers are agreed that new technology also came into its own in a recent marathon legal 'whodunnit?' involving a scuttled ship.

They say use of software costing a modest u200 almost certainly saved thousands of pounds in man-hours and must signal the way ahead for efficient handling of future major commercial actions.

The case was based on its facts, which included a vast amount of complex and highly technical expert evidence.

Despite the use of technology, the action occupied 82 days in the Commercial Court and a further 29 in the Court of Appeal. Without daily computerised transcripts, lawyers admit the length of the case would have been horrific.

Much of the evidence was technical and needed constant references for analysis and re-analysis during the High Court hearing. The singling out of individual points for analysis would have been highly time consuming in conventional paper transcript-based evidence. The computer word search facility proved a great time saver.

The legal team says that from early preparation of skeleton arguments through to counsel's final submissions, the computers were "invaluable" to both counsel and solicitors. They made it possible for references to evidence to be retrieved accurately and rapidly.

Computers also enabled the court to pinpoint areas of evidence not directly under consideration.

Apart from serving as a classic argument in favour of wider use of new technology in litigation, however, the case proved a fascinating example of a court room 'whodunnit?'.

The dispute centred on a $3 million dollar insurance claim in respect of the Greek-owned Ikarian Reefer which ran aground off the coast of Sierra Leone in 1985. The central question was a variation on the 'did she fall or was she pushed' theme.

The court was asked in an uncompromising argument by the Prudential Life Assurance Co, lead underwriters in the action, to rule the Ikarian Reefer was 'pushed' and that her owners, Costas and Anthony Comninos, were aware she had been scuttled.

The Commercial Court decided they had not been. But the Appeal Court decided the scuttling of the vessel, which was also set ablaze, was carried out with the "privity of the owners".

The appeal judges, in a 181-page written judgment, branded the Comninos brothers, despite their high standing in the shipping community, as men "capable of falling short of the standards of honest and respectable businessmen".

The underwriters, by use of the vast weight of lower court evidence, all of which was put before the Appeal Court and which included evidence given under subpoena from Chase Manhattan London, convinced the Appeal Court that the scuttling and fire were deliberate, that there was a motive and that the brothers were involved.

Without the new technology employed, however, there is little doubt the logistics of their task would have been harder, hugely expensive and infinitely more time consuming.