Rapidly changing technology and new ideas about how to deliver the work of the courts using technology tools have already begun to impact how hearings are conducted. Increasing numbers of new generation lawyers have driven the demand for new technologies, coupled with the need for courts to use new technology to meet community expectations of being able to access information online. This article gives a very brief overview of the use of technology in the courts in Australia, highlighting some areas of innovation.
Advancements in technology in the courts
For years the courts in Australia have taken a pro-active approach to codifying the requirements and parameters for the use of technology, to the extent that much of the development and innovation has stemmed from the requirements of Practice Notes issued by the courts. As far back as 2002, the Supreme Court of Victoria issued a Practice Note (subsequently updated in 2007) providing guidelines for the use of technology in civil litigation. Such an approach is driven by the recognition that the use of technology can save cost, increase access to justice and streamline the courts’ workload. For example, Practice Note CM6 from the Federal Court of Australia provides that “the Court expects the parties to a proceeding and their legal representatives to consider, at as early a stage in the proceeding as practicable, the use of technology in the management of documents and conduct of the proceeding”.
In 2015, The Hon. Marilyn Warren AC, Chief Justice of Victoria, gave a speech entitled “Embracing Technology: the Way Forward for the Courts”. She referred to many of the recent advancements in technology, discussed the practical impact in terms of the courts’ workload, and posited a scenario where an entire hearing could take place on a virtual basis; as well as outlining some of the more advanced options which may in the future bring dramatic changes to the way that court hearings are run using technology.
Digital audio and video recording
Since the 1950s, many courts in Australia have had some form of recording of proceedings, beginning with analogue tapes and moving to digital audio recording technology in the 1990s. Almost every courtroom in Australia is now equipped with the ability to create a multi-channel digital audio recording. Some of these courts are monitored and logged in person; some via CCTV or digital video camera on a centralized basis (i.e. from a control room within the building); and increasingly courtrooms are being monitored and logged remotely. For instance, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, a national federal agency with 24 courtrooms across Australia, is recorded and monitored from DTI offices in Melbourne. A team of monitors ensure that recording is carried out to the required standard and create notes, or annotations, to assist in the transcription process.
Recent advancements in digital audio recording technology have afforded the opportunity for court agencies to look at how they manage this information, and companies like DTI are being asked to provide online access to recorded audio with annotations within 15 minutes of recording being completed. This increases the importance of the annotations which now form the basis of searches carried out by court staff. Increasingly the courts are also asking for online portals to enable court users to access, with permission, the audio and transcripts from hearings they were involved in – including the requirement for such information to be accessible via iPads and smartphones.
Audio transcription or realtime court reporting
While same day, next day and longer turnaround transcription using QWERTY keyboards is routinely carried out and audio recordings in the courts are being transferred to teams of transcribers, the requirement for instant access to information has also meant that real-time court reporting is an in-demand service, particularly for long-running, complex hearings. The use of real-time also affords lawyers the opportunity to follow the hearing remotely, either from a desktop or via an iPad™ or smartphone, and exchange messages with those in court. It has been the experience at DTI that court reporters and audio transcribers provide complementary rather than competing services. There is room for both methodologies depending on the requirements of the parties to the litigation – as well as the nature of the litigation itself.
For a number of years major court hearings in Australia have been carried out in an “e-court” environment, which is seen as an essential aid to ensuring the smooth running of proceedings. The term “e-court” can encompass the use of technology to assist in hearing preparation, but usually describes the technology provided within the hearing room to assist in the delivery and presentation of evidence to the court. Generally these services are provided by specialist companies rather than the courts themselves, although in many cases courtrooms have been adapted to accommodate the latest technology. In the e-court environment, exhibits are displayed onscreen as they are referred to within the hearing, or are live-linked within the real-time transcript, and can be annotated, enlarged or rotated on screens throughout the room. The entirety of the proceedings is often streamed via the internet, thus enabling widespread public access.
Other advancements in technology:
Courts in Australia have moved towards the use of e-filing systems which enable parties to file their matters electronically. These systems form the front end which then flows through automatically to case management within the courts’ own network, and it is easy to see how this could subsequently be augmented with matter-number-specific documents and files – including audio files and transcripts – related to the hearing to become a repository of information about each hearing which then can ultimately be accessible by court users. Use of cloud-based technology will also enable greater access to this information.
The courts in Australia already make use of video-linking technology in a number of different scenarios, including where witnesses cannot attend in person, or when working with remote communities (where judges in some cases appear by video link from their chambers) or to enable vulnerable witnesses to give evidence. It is easy to see how efficient it could be to deliver justice via remote link – to the extent that an entire hearing could potentially take place with no one present in a technique known as the “distributed courtroom”, where participants meet within the same virtual space, all appearing from courtrooms or courtroom-like spaces and placed as they would be in a traditional courtroom. Large screens allow for parties to appear life-sized and to make eye contact.
The rapid development of technology and the reduction in the cost of using it (for example, the cost of data storage) will inevitably mean that there will be further opportunities for the courts to increase efficiencies, save cost and enable access to justice. As ideas are shared within the courts and by service providers and court users alike, we can expect to see further rapid changes to the extent that the traditional courtroom as it now exists may in future be unrecognisable to future court users, while still performing the essential role that courts play within our communities.
Charlotte Pache is the Managing Director of DTI’s Australia business. Charlotte has over 18 years of experience as a manager in the legal services industry, and worked in the court reporting and transcription business for 15 years, firstly in London and subsequently as Managing Director (Asia) for eight years, before moving to Australia to take over her current role in 2011. She has an LLB (Hons) and Diploma in Legal Practice from Glasgow University. Charlotte has published articles in the international legal press on the use of technology in dispute resolution.