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The changing role of technology in the law

STYLISHLY thin laptop computers have replaced the thick reams of legal documents barristers and judges carry to courtrooms in the May Holman building on St George’s Terrace.

Four District Courts were upgraded in 1999 and are among the most technologically advanced in Australia. At a cost of just less than $1.1 million, the courtrooms were equipped with applications specially designed in consultation with the Ministry of Justice.

Courts six, seven, eight and nine are equipped with an integrated system that allows exhibits to be projected on large screens, witnesses to give evidence via video conferencing and judges to direct juries with the aid of PowerPoint.

The public can view the ‘intelligent’ courts this week as part of Law Week activities.

Ministry of Justice audio visual services manager Terry McAdam said the technology was not applicable for all trials, but was particularly useful in fraud trials and other cases where the paper trail often was long and confusing.

The electronic trial book is a secure network into which all documents and exhibits are scanned before a trial. During proceedings, the associate then can retrieve each document as needed by the counsel or judge and project it onto a screen for the court to see.

“It’s best used for document intensive trials, like a fraud trial or any other trial where there’s a huge amount of paper,” Mr McAdam said.

“ It’s also useful for accident or crime scenes where a lot of photographs have been taken. In those cases, where there’s a huge amount of material for display to the jury, it’s suitable to be done in a full electronic medium.”

District Court Judge Mary Ann Yeats was one of the first judges to make use of the facilities in the May Holman courts. She has been using the Microsoft program PowerPoint for the past two years after learning juries were having trouble understanding long directions from judges.

“Two years ago at a judges’ conference in New South Wales we had information reach us about the problems juries were having understanding lengthy directions at the end of trial,” Judge Yeats said.

“Doing their best, juries are listening to a judge for an hour, an hour and a half perhaps, and they aren’t used to remembering everything.

“While I’m directing the jury, on the screen I succinctly state what the law is, little rules of law, elements of defence and things of that nature. And they’re able to look at that while I speak.

“I didn’t change what I say to the jury, I just highlighted certain parts.”

Judge Yeats said that, when she presides over a trial in one of the standard courtrooms, she feels the juries are “a bit deprived, because (PowerPoint) is just another option to communicate with them”.

At this stage only Judge Yeats and Judge Cate O’Brien have used the technology on a regular basis, although Judge Yeats said other judges had shown an interest in using it. But she said it is up the individual how best to communicate with the jury.

“I think our duty is to communicate the law. I have to ensure the jury understands properly and that’s why I use it,” Judge Yeats said.

Also on show throughout Law Week is the video conferencing system. First introduced to WA courtrooms in 1996, the technology saved WA taxpayers more than $500,000 in the 1999-2000 financial year.

The video conference system is the same as used by companies to communicate face to face with employees or clients interstate and overseas.

It is used extensively by the Court of Petty Sessions to deal with prisoners on remand without having to transport them to Perth.

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