Exploring the courtrooms of the future
By Sally J. Suddock
It's only a matter of time before the rapid advances in technology "catch up" with courtrooms around the world. Just within the last decade, faxed documents were accepted by the courts, and the old, 11 x 14 foolscap paper yielded to the letter-sized documents used by the rest of the business world outside of the legal community.
Today, when the details of a matter can be retrieved instantly from WestLaw, and pleadings can be distributed to trial teams in seconds via e-mail, the courts are increasingly allowing technology into the courtroom. Electronic filing of documents is becoming accepted, as are elaborate video animations, and teleconferencing, for example.
But what will the courtroom of the future look like for attorneys, the judiciary and juries? The worldwide medium of the Web offers a glimpse of the future in just a couple mouse-clicks, taking the curious on a virtual tour of the courtrooms and law practices of the information age.
Perhaps the most well known experiment in high-tech and the judicial system is Courtroom 21. First unveiled on Sept. 13, 1993, the courtroom is housed at the McGlothlin Courtroom at the College of William & Mary, affiliated with the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) Technology Laboratory.
Courtroom 21 is ringed with flat plasma television screens and has smaller LCD monitors installed on every desktop. Several camera domes hang from the ceiling to record and project every move, and every document and piece of evidence can be digitally projected on monitors for the jurors and audience in the room or around the world. Other technologies are used for recording the proceedings and managing documents.
Courtroom 21's outreach
Directed by Professor Fredrick Lederer, the law school project staff keeps Courtroom 21 up and running for law students and the legal community, with 22 staffers who range from clerks and technologists to training professionals, webmasters and a master cabinet-maker.
The project conducts frequent technology demonstrations in the McGlothlin Courtroom in Williamsburg, VA. Presentations customarily include not only specific hardware and software demonstrations but also discussion of the legal and pragmatic implications of use of the given technologies. Presentations can be conducted live or via two-way videoconferencing. Using "six channel" 384K Tandberg videoconferencing, project staff can conduct interactive presentations to any location in the world that has modern videoconferencing communications.
Training to the legal community outside the college of law also is offered. The master curriculum for lawyers can be taught on-site in law firm offices or in the McGlothlin Courtroom 21. The curriculum consists of four phases: general orientation; specialized lecture material that includes pretrial, trial, and post-trial matters; hands-on instruction concentrating on basic trial presentation technology; and finishing with a mock bench trial-using the technology. Training, which is tailored to the lawyers' needs, includes technology-based deposition practice and the implications of computers for discovery; use of high-technology court records systems, including digital audio and real-time electronic transcripts; electronic legal materials, including electronic pleading and briefs; evidence presentation; and the use of remote testimony via videoconferencing.
With the rapid deployment of information technology tools across all business sectors, the Courtroom 21 project team's speaking and training schedule is intense; in some cases, their time must be requested 18 months in advance.
How does the project keep up with the technology it seeks to incorporate into Courtroom 21? More than two dozen vendors of software, hardware and other tools participate in the project, along with nearly 20 high-tech courts around the country that are affiliated with the project. Lederer estimated the 300 to 500 courtrooms in the U.S. and Australia are building out high-tech capability.
And for those who want to keep their law office up to date, themselves, the Courtroom 21 website may be the best, single-point repository of who's doing what in law information technology. Each of the vendors working with the college is featured in the Technologies section of the site, with a description of their technology and links to their sites. Visitors to the website can browse technology by categories, which include court record systems; interpretation systems; courtroom and systems design; law firm applications; display devices; legal research applications; electronic filing; projection devices; evidence presentation; software; remote conferencing; infrastructure; web based applications.
Implications on ethics and practice
Perhaps not all are enthused by the implications of high-tech in the courtroom. When the William & Mary law school conducted its 2001 Courtroom 21 Laboratory Trial in April, using the fictitious case of United States v Linsor, the Associated Press covered the trial in detail. In an eerie precursor of things to come, the principal evidence was a 3D animation that recreated a terrorist bombing and collision of two aircraft over downtown London.
"It was a fake case, but the two-way remote testimony and startlingly lifelike animation used to re-create a terrorist bombing were real…and it held the courtroom rapt with its realism," reported the AP. "They gave jurists and lawyers plenty of legal and ethical questions to consider as such courtrooms of the future are installed nationwide."
"The groundbreaking portion of the trial occurred when a British barrister at the University of Leeds appeared on a television placed on the prosecutor's desk. The television faced the witness box, where another television displayed a live image of the barrister's star witness sitting in Canberra, Australia."
The terrorist event, commented federal Judge James Rosenbaum, "didn't occur, wouldn't occur, and can't occur," suggesting that "each side may use the animation for their own ends, and it brings up the issues of truth and what we do as lawyers," reported the AP.
The ethical and perceptual implications of the capabilities of high-tech in the courtroom are among the issues that another high-tech law school courtroom in Arizona is exploring over time.
The University of Arizona Courtroom of the Future Project at Tucson was begun in the spring of 1994.
In addition to the training of law students, the Arizona facility has conducted empirical inquiry into the use of technology in the courtroom, such as how technology can increase the efficiency of the trial process and how its use affects juries, witnesses and other principals in the court. The project also is exploring design considerations for access by those with disabilities, such as real-time reporting to allow the deaf to participate in proceedings; software enhancements to modern operating systems to enable such innovations as single finger typing and control of unintentional errors; enhancements that provide access for people with impaired motor control; and voice and text recognition technologies that allow the blind to input and read data.
"Technology has come to our courtrooms, and lawyers must now cope with the consequences," notes the Courtroom 21 project. "Judges increasingly permit case-specific trial presentation technology, and the courts are rapidly adopting integrated high-technology courtrooms. As a result, today's litigator has opportunities and risks unknown to prior generations of lawyers."
More information on the two projects can be found on the Web at