21st-Century Law

From the gathering of evidence, to preparing cases and holding trials, AV technology is rapidly becoming invaluable within the legal process. Anna Mitchell finds out what’s going on the market right now and discovers some exiting prospects on the horizon.

For many years the legal arena has been viewed as a staid and archaic sector where a lack of awareness has conspired with a complicated web of tired legislation to make it a territory hostile to new technologies. But all that’s starting to change. From law firms leading the way in corporate installations, to courts and police stations overhauling their processes, the sector is increasingly opening itself up to new technologies.

The AVC Group is present in eight countries and is active in implementing audiovisual equipment in the justice systems of Croatia, Bosnia, Cosovo and Nigeria. Zlatco Jelacic, is a project manager for AVC Zagreb and specialises in government projects. He explains a system that the company has implemented in courtrooms across Croatia.

“We use a parliamentary system, which is an automated video system with a robotic camera head. In Zagreb County Court we have a main courtroom that is covered by such a system. The system means we do not have to have television teams in courtrooms, everything is broadcast live over the AV system. It is broadcast locally for the journalists and the broadcasters take it live and transmit it out over their own systems.”

This is a system that cannot be used in the UK where the use of recording equipment in all its courts is banned. However, Julian Phillips, managing director of Impact, a UK headquartered systems integrator, says the legal system is rapidly becoming a bigger market for audiovisual equipment. He claims that the Police, Crown Prosecution Service and Court Service are turning to new technologies to combat budget restraints and provide a better service to witnesses and defendants alike.

A huge part of this is the use of audiovisual equipment to protect vulnerable witnesses. Impact has been instrumental in implementing audio technology that provides voice modulation services within courts. The witness sits behind a screen and the audio is split: one channel goes out to the public gallery with the witness’s voice distorted; another channel is fed through IR headphones to the judge and jury who will hear the real voice. As part of the Trident, an anti-gun operation set up in 1998 to tackle gun crime in London, the Police ran a roadshow to demonstrate how the voice modulation technology worked and how it could protect a witness. Phillips claims this had a positive affect in the number of witnesses coming forward to testify against perpetrators of gun crime.

Jelacic also explained how AVC had provided voice distortion for the protection of witnesses and it doesn’t just stop with audio. AVC Zagreb has been active in implementing videoconferencing systems for courts where it is possible to provide protection by scrambling the picture as well as distorting the voice. “We use a special system with an encryption of the voice and encryption of the picture. These systems are used for international court trials in The Hague, for international hearings with other countries and for hearings with children.”

The company has co-operated with the US Embassy on such projects. It installs special systems that enable the taking of statements from persons that are not present in court, or even on Croatian territory. This has proved particularly useful in cases of war crime trials when witnesses or those who participated in crimes are currently in other countries. AVC also provides decryption of the communication channel so a third party cannot intercept the transmission.

But there are challenges to implementing such systems. “When we are speaking about international hearings then there are many hidden facts that you have to be aware of,” explains Jelacic. “Especially when it comes to the mater of territories. There is no way that any country’s justice system could interrogate anyone on the territory of a foreign country if it is not covered by an international or bilateral contract or with some kind of special arrangement.

“We have had a lot of problems about bringing people into embassy buildings and so on. The embassy building must be considered the territory of the country that occupies it. There were many, many legal issues that had to be considered to get this system implemented. Furthermore when you are carrying out such hearings you have a lot of materials and have to have some kind of trusted archiving system in order to protect the recordings as well as give access to the materials for people who need them. There are so many things that need to be regulated and considered when working in this area.

Phillips would agree that legislation provides many barriers to implementation of audiovisual equipment in UK courts but says there will be changes on the way that will open up courts to the greater use of audiovisual equipment.

A particular area he pinpoints is the process of evidence gathering. An Act passed in 1984 means every Police interview has to be recorded. The police are still using E90 tape cassettes and making up to three copies; a master copy, a working copy and a witness/suspect copy. This has resulted in the storing of a huge amount of audio tapes as well as VHS recordings for vulnerable witnesses. Furthermore the legal system will use evidence in the form of CCTV recordings and even cameras carried by Police Officers.

He points out there is a huge amount of data out there that could be held digitally and amalgamated onto a searchable system that allows access, albeit restricted, to certain parties. Impact has worked in this area developing a system called VADER (video audio digital evidence recorder) that is currently installed in Defence College of Policing and Guarding. VADER is PC based and can be implemented in interrogation rooms. It offers touchscreen control and streams content via IP to a central server. There is a huge benefit in not having to transcribe interviews, as is current practice, ranging from boosting accuracy to speeding up trials and cutting costs. However, legislation currently bars the implementation of this equipment in court as evidence still has to be copied onto removable media. But Phillips says change, mainly driven by the need for the Police, Crown Prosecution Service and Court Service to cut costs, is underway and it will open the floodgates for the implementation of audiovisual solutions such as VADER. “The fact that in the UK all evidence has to be recorded, coupled with financial restraint, makes [the legal process] currently the most exiting area for AV in the UK at the moment.” he added.

Phillips highlights Sweden as the most advanced country in Europe in terms of implementing digital systems and using digital material in court. A massive overhaul of the country’s courts is well underway encompassing the installation of projectors and screens to display images, videos and documents on the courtrooms walls. Judges operate control panels that are designed with easy to use touch interfaces. In a massive departure from UK proceedings, Swedish hearings will be recorded with video stored at a secure, high security computer centre run by the National Courts Administration. Philips says this will be used in many cases for appeals. The original trial can be viewed by other judges, obviating the need for witnesses to appear in court again.

Videoconferencing and telepresence is also playing a massive role in reducing witness transportation. Sweden is starting to implement broadcast studios in prison to remove transportation costs. Phillips claims that the UK is very interested in this solution as it has the potential to save millions of pounds.

In other countries audio archiving of court trials is commonplace and AVC Zagreb installs numerous recording systems. Jelacic offers, by way of example, a system based on equipment from FTR, an Australian company that manufactures multi-channel recorders. “Every hearing is recorded in four-channels and later on archives are established based on those hearings. At the moment, in Bosnia, we have 400 courts covered with such systems. We also have such systems installed in Nigeria.”

The legal market has been slow to implement audiovisual technology with legislation the biggest barrier. But as changes are made to modernise the process, the arena represents a largely untapped market. Perhaps most interestingly, as the recession bites government budgets, the implementation of new technology actually becomes more, not less, attractive.

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