Sunday, Bloody Sunday, Wins
by Charles Christian
DURING a recent ceremony at the English Law Society's Hall in London, the U.K.'s Society for Computers & Law announced the winner of its prestigious annual award for the best use of technology in a legal application in the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland. The winners received the award from David Lock M.P., a member of the House of Commons and a junior minister at the Lord Chancellor's Department (the U.K. equivalent of the Department of Justice).
Lord Mark Saville
This year's winner: the consortium responsible for putting together the courtroom presentation and litigation support technology backing Lord Mark Saville's inquiry into the 1972 Bloody Sunday shootings in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. (See July, 2000 issue of LTN.)
The consortium, headed by International Computers Limited, included contributions by Ulster I.T. consultancy Northern Ireland Center for Learning Resources, lead by Derek Kinnen; as well as two well-known legal market players: the OyezStraker litigation support services subsidiary Legal Technologies, and the LiveNote system from Smith Bernal International (LiveNote Inc. in the U.S.)
But what exactly does the winning entry do? The consortium put together an integrated package of technologies to support the Bloody Sunday Inquiry in the full range of its activities. Along with display systems for handling scanned in images of documents and video evidence, there are also real-time transcription and database retrieval systems.
However the undoubted star of the show, which makes the Bloody Sunday Inquiry I.T. infrastructure really stand out from every other courtroom evidence presentation system in use in the U.K. today is a 360-degree 3D virtual reality re-creation of 1972 Londonderry. Despite the fact the city has radically changed over the past 30 years since the shootings took place, by using a touch screen panel, witnesses at the inquiry can pull up images of Derry (then and now) to illustrate their testimony.
Not least it means that when someone says, "I stood there, I could see a gunman on that roof," the audience can follow his eyeline to see if it was physically possible to see anyone from that vantage point -- or whether the passage time had not only altered the landscape but also dimmed recollections?
Graham Smith, of LiveNote Inc., in Londonderry.
So was the project worth it? Lord Saville has already said he believes the technology has made the proceedings substantially faster. And, it was no surprise to hear David Lock add his view that this use of technology was entirely in keeping with the Lord Chancellor's Department's current strategy of investing in technology to modernize the justice system.
But, there is also another potential benefit of this system, in the context of the Londonderry scenario -- namely the 3D graphics elements provides an impartial aid to witnesses, as distinct from being just one side's reconstruction of events. A case of justice must not only be done but virtually seen to be done.
In recognition of the fact the awards jury are frequently looking at entirely different products -- how can you judge whether an accounts system is better than an online training system or even a courtroom presentation system -- the Society for Computers & Law also highlights the immediate runners-up for the awards.
This year there were four: Perceptive Technology's Mentor knowledge management system; the new IRIS XML-based knowledge management system from Interface Software; the 2Ends online continuing professional development system (CPD is a U.K. accreditation scheme for ongoing professional training for lawyers, like the U.S.' continuing legal education programs); and the BAMM welfare benefits system from Ferret Information Systems.
The BAMM system (Benefits Advice in Multi-Media) was my favorite. At the awards ceremony, Ferret demonstrated a wheelchair-friendly kiosk version, housed in an orange contraption that looked like "Robbie the Robot" from the old 1957 Leslie Nielsen science fiction movie Forbidden Planet. Because it is fully automatic the BAMM system can also offer information and advice on a 24-hour-a-day basis -- and in any one of up to 12 different languages.
Automating the Courts
Over the past few months we have been hearing a lot of reports about the ways courts in the United States are adopting electronic filing and similar forms of automation. At long last it looks like we are going to see similar progress in the U.K.
At the start of the year the Court Service (the government agency responsible for running courts in the U.K.) issues a consultation paper on the subject of modernizing the civil courts system. Introducing the proposals, Ian Magee, the chief executive of the Court Service said: "These proposals are about extending court services into the heart of the community. Modern technology allows the court into people's living rooms and offices via personal computers and digital TV, making our services available at times and in ways that suit our customers. But so much of our work involves those who have no access to technology, or who are excluded by language or disability. Through partnerships with advice agencies we hope to reach out into society to those who might otherwise be excluded."
The proposals include: a "virtual court," using the Internet, e-mail and interactive digital TV, to make small claims and other transactions with the court . "Courts on call" enables a range of court processes to be available by telephone -- e.g., to make a request to enter judgment.
The actual changes will happen at different speeds. Some ideas are already being tried in the courts and the report outlines the proposals for more pilot projects.
Commenting on the proposals, David Lock (he was a practising barrister so at least he has a practical experience of the workings of the justice system) said the structure of the civil courts and the way they work "while entirely appropriate for the time of Dickens... no longer serves modern day society.
"Developments in technology have given people more direct access to services from their own homes, the library, workplace and even the supermarket. E-mail has become the communication medium of choice for much of business," said Lock.
"People are able to see the benefits of technology in other areas of their lives and, rightly, expect better services and modern facilities from the courts. These proposals show how the civil courts can, with the help of technology and partnerships with other agencies, provide easier and cheaper access to justice."
Charles Christian is a member of the Law Technology News Editorial Advisory Board, and is the publisher and editor of the U.K.-based Legal Technology Insider newsletter and Legal Technology News.com ezine.