Law: Courtroom technology on trial: Videos, television and computers can aid the pursuit of justice, but, as Jenny Grove explains, they are not always witness-friendly

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The Independent Online
A RECENT Old Bailey trial involving charges of sexual assault against two young girls highlighted concerns about technology in the courtroom.

At the outset of the trial the prosecution planned to show video recordings of interviews between the children, who were the key witnesses for the Crown, and police and social workers.

The move was made possible by new rules that came into force last autumn under the 1991 Criminal Justice Act, designed to reduce the amount of questioning in court children have to endure.

Unfortunately, the video recordings, which were to replace part of the children's live testimony, proved to be of poor quality. In one interview the camera had been badly positioned, and, to make matters worse, the child had her back to the window. A second camera had produced an inset into the top of the picture, showing only some of the child's profile and the back of her head.

The judge ruled that the recordings could not be used, as they did not clearly show the witnesses' reactions.

Instead, both girls gave all their evidence by live television link. In doing so they made use of some of the most technologically advanced equipment constructed for the courtroom. Installed at the Central Criminal Court about three years ago - and now in 47 court centres in England and Wales - the link enables child witnesses to give evidence from a room adjoining the court and avoid seeing the defendant.

The judge becomes what one barrister called a 'vision-mixer', with a control panel and two screens. One shows the whole of the room containing the child and a court usher. The second screen, which the jury sees, shows the child and, inset in one corner, the barrister asking questions.

Using the live link in the Old Bailey trial, the children tended to move themselves and their chairs out of range of the fixed camera and had to be asked to 'sit back a bit' or 'sit to the left' so that their faces could be seen.

The trial was halted eventually for reasons unconnected with the live TV link, but the case illustrated some of the technology's shortcomings.

Certain judges and barristers have reservations about such high-tech equipment and prefer a simpler system in which children give evidence in court, shielded from the defendant by a screen.

Stephen Leslie QC, who has experience of abuse cases, believes that live television links may put the prosecution at a disadvantage and reduce the impact of a child's evidence. 'Even though the child is in the other room, the idea of a television removes some of the reality,' he says.

Sally Howes, a barrister who has prosecuted in similar trials, points out that it is easier for an advocate to keep a child's attention when face to face in court.

Peter Joyce QC, the prosecutor at the trial of the Leicestershire social worker Frank Beck, says there was something missing when the high-tech system was used. 'When a child is there in front of you, you can tell quite a lot from a shrug or hanging of the head,' he says. 'You don't get that with the television link. It's good from the children's point of view, because they don't come into the public arena. But I'm not sure it always helps to get their story across accurately.'

He also points out that for advocates, the technology takes some getting used to. 'If you've got a witness on the TV link, you almost have to learn their statement by rote so that you can maintain eye contact,' Mr Joyce says. 'If you start looking down and fumbling with papers all they'll see is the top of your head.'

Peter McMahon, senior probation officer at the Old Bailey, believes that some children are not good at projecting themselves on television. 'In some cases it's the right answer but in others, something is lost. To have the option is a great step forward,' he says.

Ian Robertson, a partner with the Reading solicitors Griffiths Robertson, believes, however, that the link should be used whenever possible. One of his clients, a 13-year-old who had given evidence in open court without the technology, had been severely damaged by the experience, Mr Robertson says.

'As a lawyer who acts for children I see the effect of abuse and then the effect of the criminal system on them. It's a double system of abuse. Obviously I want to see the perpetrators sent down as much as everyone else, but if a child's damaged in the process that's too high a price to pay,' Mr Robertson says.

Prudence Murdoch of the Newbury solicitors Gardner Leader agrees. 'Children find any sort of proximity to an abuser very frightening. An abuser gets an emotional hold over the child and terrorises it. Children sometimes pretend to be confident but crumble when they're confronted by the person,' she says.

Different considerations apply to live television links between English court and adult witnesses overseas, which were used for the first time last year and proved successful, cheap and non-controversial. The transcontinental trail-blazing took place in three cases - a criminal trial prosecuted by the Serious Fraud Office, a county court case about the disappearance of an antique clock and a High Court shipping action.

In the last two years court technology has been helping the deaf. Recently, in two separate cases, hard of hearing defendants were able to follow what was said in court by reading a transcript from a computer screen. The words were typed on a keyboard in phonetic shorthand by a specially-trained operator. The device, called the Palantype, was originally developed for the then MP Jack Ashley.

A technology package popular with lawyers is LIX - Legal Information Exchange - which enables documents to be sent up to 100 times faster than by fax. Designed by Sean Overend, a judge, and John Mawhood, a solicitor, LIX is now used by 90 firms of solicitors, 45 individual barristers and 50 sets of chambers.

LIX is also being tested by the Lord Chancellor's Department, the Bar Council and the Law Society as a court listings service. A special version of the programme keeps five sets of barristers' chambers informed about forthcoming cases at the Old Bailey and eight London Crown courts.