Videoconferencing technology is being used in the Royal Courts of Justice in London in a bid to modernise the judicial system, save time and reduce costs.
Court staff started looking into using videoconferencing following a trial four years ago in which a live link was set up with a court in Singapore as part of a debate on new technologies and "the courtroom of the future". The High Court also linked up with a courtroom in the US.
A key area where the court hopes to make savings and efficiencies is travel. Expert witnesses based overseas can make use of the system instead of travelling to London. They can even be interviewed simultaneously by other courts.
Videoconferencing can also be used to hear evidence from prisoners, enabling savings to be made on security arrangements. Other uses include personal injury trials, where people might be incapable of travelling to court, and child abuse cases, where witnesses need to be protected from the trauma of the courtroom.
However, permission has to be sought in advance from all parties involved in a case before video evidence can be submitted.
The court needed a system that was capable of interfacing with a wide range of remote videoconferencing stations and supporting a number of screens within the courtrooms so that the witness, judge, prosecution and defence could all be visible to one another. To this end, it brought in technology firm Prime Business Solutions to conduct a feasibility study last spring.
It also wanted to get the system in place by October, taking advantage of the summer period, when there are less cases. Ian Hyams, director of the Supreme Courts Group, says court staff have worked closely with Prime Business Solutions and the relationship between them "has always been very good".
The Royal Courts of Justice currently has videoconferencing facilities in three locations, including court 38, where it is managed from a touch-screen control panel based in a separate office behind the courtroom.
An operator controls the four cameras in the courtroom, switching between the participants using options such as pan and zoom. A document-imaging machine enables documents including x-rays to be viewed remotely.
The court is now looking at installing videoconferencing in two other courtrooms. At the moment it is using ISDN 30, but it may switch to IP connections, which would save money on dial-up bills. The court is also considering using videoconferencing for training and meetings. "Videoconferencing has come of age now," says Hyams.
To promote the service, Hyams' team has staged awareness events, and the system is now in use on a daily basis. "It has really taken off," says Hyams. "All of the judiciary that have seen it have been very supportive, as are the members of the bar who have used it. Demand is increasing all the time."