The Cowan trial of the Daniel Morcombe killer was an eTrial, one of a number that were running across 14 Queensland Courts as they began their electronic transformation process. Other states have followed suit, embracing not just electronic lodgements in the judicial system but also electronic presentation of materials and remote witness participation.
Openness of our courts is a fundamental principle of our judicial system. eTrials demonstrate transparency and accountability for all by opening up hearings to those outside of court. For lawyers, electronic courtrooms allow for a much richer presentation of evidence. For courts, the use of technology helps to speed up the judicial process.
Counting the Benefits
There are a number of benefits eTrials provide over traditional trials:
- All legal participants and Judiciary have 24-hour, real-time access to relevant material before and during a trial;
- Documents within an eCourt environment are fully searchable, so you can easily and quickly search keywords and phrases within the documents;
- It's easy to highlight and make notes on electronic documents for the whole team to see;
- Remote witnesses can participate in real-time.
While eTrials are conducted similarly to regular hearings, the main difference is that documents are submitted and viewed electronically in the electronic court book, as well as allowing remote participation in real-time.
And while evidence management in an electronic court book or appeal book is one aspect of the eTrial process, evidence presentation is another important facet. eTrial evidence uses specialised presentation software to present the evidence in real-time to remote witnesses and to parties within the hearing. Exhibits marked by the Judge are displayed and processed in the same timeframe and manner of a traditional court, however this is done immediately.
Importantly, an eTrial allows for remote witnesses to participate in the hearing in real-time, both in taking the stand and viewing evidence. Witnesses do not normally have access to the electronic court book, however witnesses will have a monitor in the witness stand where the witness can view the evidence being displayed.
eTrials typically offer a daily transcript service where the transcripts are presented in real-time for the judge and parties. The transcripts are finalised at the end of the proceedings and then uploaded to the electronic court book for parties to access. Similar to evidence, transcripts are also fully text-searchable.
There have been a number of private and public hearings that operate as an eTrial and also offer a webcast streaming functionality, where the broadcast of the hearing is made available on public websites or to a private website for restricted viewing.
eTrial solutions come in varying forms and associated costs according to their complexity.
The most cost effective method is to DIY and bring your own device to connect to the court's presentations systems to provide evidence management and presentation. To reduce the costs when appearing in court, parties should always only provide the consolidated tender bundle; the practice of providing all documents exchanged is not acceptable in any jurisdiction.
The biggest cost of any trial is in the discovery phase. The cost of an eTrial is easily absorbed in the eDiscovery phase where all documents exchanged (which tend to constitute the trial bundles) are already electronic and set up with automatic linking capability, or hyperlinking.
Regardless of the initial outlay, eTrials are capable of improving the productivity of legal practitioners and courts by providing flexible, easy access to court documents. This ultimately reduces the time spent by lawyers producing and sharing bulk copies of physical documents.
When Would you Want an eTrial?
The most basic consideration is obviously whether or not the court is willing to permit an eTrial and if it has eTrial technology available. Courts that support eTrials usually provide individuals with access to an electronic court book, unique credentials to access the documents, monitors within the courtroom to access and display the documents and access to the internet through the court's Wi-Fi service. While most courts around Australia have some of these facilities, there is a commitment to move in the direction of electronic hearings.
Where facilities are unavailable in courtrooms, many eTrial providers offer court build solutions where personnel can build temporary court rooms that cater to electronic document management and presentation. Parties must also contemplate if they can produce the documents electronically and if conducting an eTrial produces enough cost and time benefits.