Preparing for a real courtroom drama

As new technology moves into the most traditional preserves – such as the courtroom – the repercussions could have an effect on the architecture and design.

Question: how can you find someone guilty when there is no one in the dock? Answer: when you have a videolink to the cell where he is being held. The prisoner stays in jail and just his image appears on screen in the courtroom.

Telepresence for prisoners is one of many emerging hi-tech innovations designed to solve some of the pressing problems modern courts face. Videolinks could help in a number of ways.

By keeping the accused behind bars instead of in the courtroom, there is less chance of witnesses and juries being intimidated or influenced by their presence. The cost of bringing them to the court, possibly under tight security, could be avoided. And there is less chance of the authorities being embarrassed by some of the more bizarre courtroom escapes.

Earlier this year, two mafiosi on trial in Salerno kicked through floor tiles in their holding “cage” and fled down a tunnel, dug under the courtroom by accomplices. Giuseppe Autorino and Ferdinando Cesarano – known affectionately as The Butcher and The Accountant – dropped into the tunnel, crawled 6m to freedom and hijacked a passing car.

There have been other notable security breaches: in April 1997, a man awaiting trial at the Old Bailey escaped by hurling himself through a locked glass window, while an estranged husband in Sweden smuggled a stick of dynamite into the courtroom where his divorce case was being heard and blew himself to pieces. There are ways of splitting up without, well, splitting up oneself.

And there are ways of making sure such stunts don’t happen in court. It is, after all, a very public place where justice has to be seen to be done. With such intense interest in court events, particularly in the US, mistakes and miscarriages of justice can have far-reaching consequences. Security blunders are just part of a list of concerns, along with spiralling costs, mounting delays and increasingly complex cases.

Major corporate or criminal actions sometimes involve parties in different time zones and generate shed loads of paperwork. Judiciaries around the world face increasing pressure to eliminate human error and streamline proceedings. Reform is in the air, with design and technology in the vanguard of change.

The next few years could see courtrooms change radically. Architects and designers of new British crown courts are given a standard specification that was established in 1971 and scarcely acknowledges new technology.

It focuses on the relationships in the courtroom between judge, jury, counsel, witness box, dock, press and public gallery. Ease of interaction is the key. Sightlines are crucial: the judge must be able to see every group and the jury box is stationed as far away from the gallery as possible, to avoid signalling and intimidation.

Entrances for judge, jurors, witnesses and public have to be segregated. Counsel occupies the well of the court and needs space for its reams of paperwork. “Coordinated upholstery and lightwood panelling” are a must, the place having to “reflect the dignity of the proceedings”. No chamber pot in the corner for the judge, then.

In the UK, the criminal justice system costs 11bn a year to run – around 500 per taxpayer. In the a single day, the cost of running one Crown Court room amounts to nearly 9000. The Court Service estimates that 10 per cent of this is money wasted through delays, postponements and cases collapsing when they get to court.

Having faced questions himself over the bill for the redesign of his own chambers, The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, is planning to reduce costs and spend 50m on wiring up Britain’s antiquated crown courts for the 21st century. Southwark Crown Court in London is the latest testing ground for some of the systems.

At a complex fraud trial involving six defendants and 10 000 documents, lawyers, witnesses and jurors were equipped with laptops. Traditional lawyers’ ribbon-bound bundles and files were scanned and displayed on screen.

Proceedings were recorded and transcribed simultaneously by computer, allowing lawyers and the judge to consult the court record at any time without holding up the trial. To help prepare for the next day’s proceedings, they just unplugged their laptops and took the trial home.

The technology was estimated to save a day a week, and, over 12 weeks, around 360 000. Another study is under way to test video-links between jails and courtrooms.

Manchester Magistrates Court has been connected, via two-way TV, to Strangeways Prison. Remand prisoners, whose escape attempts add to court bills, can see the court and speak privately to lawyers.

Liberty, the civil rights group, has reservations and says defendants should be able to attend their trials in person. Ministers counter that congestion and delays serve no one, least of all people who wait too long for their case to be heard.

There are plans to introduce digital displays in the waiting areas outside courtrooms to keep witnesses informed of events inside and the likely length of their wait. Kiosks with touch screen interfaces are being mooted. They could also download forms and deliver other services, taking the donkey work out of the system.

But it is in the US that court events are a national preoccupation, and the days of the traditional courtroom are numbered. After Judge Ito’s studious tapping away on his laptop in the OJ Simpson case and the Internet publication of the Louise Woodward verdict, the US judiciary shows signs of welcoming new technology.

Courtroom 21, a project at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, is the focus for research into the possibilities of real-time court reporting, display systems, videolinks to remote witnesses, computer animation and video-recording of proceedings using voice-activated cameras.

Young attorneys are getting used to these tools, and it is only a matter of time before they are introduced. Courtrooms would have to become more flexible, both in their hours – to receive testimony from around the world – and in their furnishings, whose configuration will need to be customised to fit the needs of individual cases. With remote links and TV screens, the judge’s traditional raised position will become less important, and the hierarchy of the courtroom could dissolve. Who knows: maybe more innovative ways than wooden panelling will be found to embody the seriousness of the court’s function.

Computerised graphics and animation sequences are already regularly used to add credibility to a side’s version of events. Specialist design groups have sprung up offering sophisticated ways of recreating events on the screen.

The logical extension is that judge, jury and litigants will don VR headsets and visit a cyberversion of a crime scene instead of going there in person. The field trip that took 19 jurors to locations in the OJ case cost 72 000.

VR models would have been free of bystanders, police helicopters, billboards proclaiming OJ’s innocence and a life-size replica of OJ in football strip, any of which may have swayed jurors one way or another.

However, technology has some way to go before the VR recreations of crucial scenes becomes sufficiently refined or before headsets are discreet enough not to make the courtroom look like an amusement arcade. The sight of judges in wigs, gowns and headsets, jerking about, trying to negotiate some virtual environment, could seriously undermine any position of respect they hope to preserve.

One thing supporters of technology in this area always add as a caveat is that nothing should be allowed to get in the way of justice. Innocent until proven guilty still applies.

With the fallout of the OJ case, Americans have discovered the perfect outlet for their own personal demons: real and make-believe court cases. They are gobbling up fictional court entertainment. There is The People’s Court – where viewers can vote online on whether a hairdresser did or did not maliciously cause harm to a customer’s barnet – and even Playboy Channel’s Sex Court, where exposed cleavages battle it out across the benches.

All of these places look like traditional courts. But the introduction of new technology promises to make real courtrooms more accessible, more streamlined and better viewing. Among the fears of our guardians of justice are that hi-tech court cases will end up as TV fodder, and that computer interventions and remote TV links will remove jurors from the hard edge of reality.

The ability to examine witnesses in person and scrutinise real places and objects should remain, they say. True, but then, the job of lawyers has always been to present a compelling legal argument, not to present the truth. Perhaps technology can help courts get closer to the facts. It won’t put good lawyers out of a job, but if it can cut their bills, no one will complain.

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