Is the digital courtroom a reality or a myth

Stephen Bairfelt / Trevor Wilkinson
Purple Market Research

In June 2013, the then Justice Minister, Damien Green outlined a plan to make all courtrooms in England and Wales fully digital by 2016.

The government pledged £160 million towards a series of initiatives ranging from increased use of technology, improved case preparation, better support for victims and televising the Court of Appeal.

Specific initiatives outlined included the following:

  • Installing Wi-Fi in the majority of 500 courts so the prosecution, defence, judiciary and court staff can access all necessary documents;
  • Digital evidence screens to enable the defence and prosecution to present evidence, including CCTV and other video footage, digitally;
  • New court presentation and collaboration software allowing prosecution, defence and judiciary to work on cases more easily and
  • New funding for IT to increase digital workings and reduce the use of paper in the system by the police and the judicial system.

Eighteen months later, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling announced a £713 million investment and plans not only for there to be Wi-Fi in court, but also for Magistrates to handle cases on iPads or similar tablets. Further plans include virtual trials with defendants and witnesses giving evidence over video link and jurors using iPads instead of lever-arch files.

The aim is to provide swifter and more effective trials which will save time, money and paperwork as well as making the trial much easier to manage, by taking away the need to rummage through piles of paper.

In June 2014, Damian Green was replaced by Mike Penning and in May 2015, Michael Gove replaced Chris Grayling to become the new Secretary of State for Justice. Both have stated that they are fully committed to making better use of technology and replace the mountain of paper in the legal system.

Research conducted by Purple MR on behalf of Merrill Corporation indicates that some in the legal profession are very able and willing to adopt the use of technology (such as the emerging younger generation of lawyers), however many appear wedded to and heavily reliant upon paper. This particularly applies to the older generation of lawyers, barristers and judges.

For many solicitors the shift towards greater use of technology is very welcome, but in a time of austerity and cost cutting there are others that are seriously questioning the expense, and whether this is really an essential update. The concern is whether this investment will make a big enough impact to justify the amount being spent.

While the government has set a target of 2016 for courtrooms across the country to go digital, the research suggests that few in the profession believe this to be a realistic date to achieve all stated ambitions. Many feel that while the greater adoption of technology in the legal process to be inevitable, there is likely to be a significant amount of resistance to a move away from paper.

Whether it’s more like 2020 rather than 2016 before we see fully digital courtrooms on a grand scale is open to debate, but what seems certain is that there will be much greater use of digital technology in the future. That said, it also seems true that the use of paper in the legal profession will continue for some time to come.