Hi-tech justice

The Hutton inquiry has been a showcase for new technology. Robert Verkaik asks: is this the future for courtrooms?
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The Independent Online

Whatever else happens after Lord Hutton delivers his findings into the circumstances of the death of Dr David Kelly, judicial inquiries will never be the same again. The state-of-the-art technology in the marquee set up behind the Royal Courts of Justice in London has allowed journalists and public to follow every spit and cough of evidence without the need to set foot inside court 73. The technology also means that key documents are no longer closely guarded by the clerks of the court but can be inspected by anyone who cares to log on to inquiry's website.

In future, perhaps all courts will be the same. Court reporting could eventually evolve into a virtual discipline in which journalists need only visit a single press centre with computer links to every courtroom in the country.

Three years ago, ministers committed themselves to the computerisation of all 78 Crown Courts in England and Wales by 2005. The scheme was part of a £94m programme to speed up justice, improve efficiency and provide better treatment for victims, witnesses and jurors in the Crown Court. But with little more than a year to go before the deadline expires, only eight crown courts are fully computerised, with five more expected to go "live" in the next few months. Systems for the electronic presentation of evidence are up and running in nine crown courts, including the Old Bailey.

Part of the reason progress has not been as speedy as many would like is limited funds made available by the Treasury. Like all ministries, the Department for Constitutional Affairs has to compete for money against other government projects.

But the massive IT panoply surrounding the Hutton inquiry was set up in just a week and shows just what can be achieved when Downing Street fully backs a project.

Andrew Wright, IT service manager at the Royal Courts of Justice, is certain that the Hutton technology could be easily adapted for big civil court cases. "For Hutton, we had to scan all the hard copies of the documents into the system, but in most trials, the bulk of evidence would already be in the right form and could be used immediately."

Mr Wright expects the first Hutton-style hi-tech courtroom in the near future. "Because the Court Service has done it all to our own specification, it shows we could set it up again pretty quickly."

But none of the Hutton technology would have been possible without the pioneering work undertaken at the Bloody Sunday inquiry, where £11m was spent on adapting technology for the coverage of the judicial proceedings. Part of the reason the cost has been so high is that the inquiry has been set up in two locations - London and Northern Ireland. Its funding comes directly from the Northern Ireland office.

The Bloody Sunday chairman, Lord Saville, has wasted no time in using the technology to impress upon his fellow judges the benefits of computerised proceedings.

One recent convert to courtroom IT is the Master of the Rolls, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers. He visited the inquiry while it was sitting in London and is now adding his voice to calls for more Government money for IT in courts. Earlier this year Lord Phillips said that without enough money for new technology the courts system was at risk of falling apart.

He opposes the current Treasury policy to recoup more money from the public by increasing court fees so that the civil courts become self-financing. He says that the policy has no statutory basis and will deny access to justice.

It is perhaps easy to get carried away with the advantages of using technology to create automated court hearings. All this has to be tested against the principles of justice. But Lord Hutton's decision to allow Dr Kelly's widow to testify by audio link marks the growing use of this technology. Rodney Warren, director of the Criminal Law Solicitors' Association, says that in criminal cases the desire to protect the witness has to be balanced with the need for a fair trial. "In the last few years there has been a growing consensus that that the court has a much greater responsibility to protect vulnerable victims. But there is a potential conflict because justice must also be seen to be done and so video links and other technologies obviously have their limitations."

Michael Schwarz, criminal law expert with London human rights law firm, Bindmans, said it was also important that the jury had the chance to "assess the credibility and demeanour of the witness first hand rather than on television."