Where there’s a will, there’s an AV
You can find AV systems in several different industries including in the legal space. John O’Brien delves into the world of integrators, lawyers and judges.
A judge with a gavel, a jury gazing on, defendant and litigant sitting apart in their respective corners, barristers posing and riposting and a hushed gallery looking on. The gavel falls and pronouncements are made. We’ve seen it ad nauseum on TV and movies.
These processes still occur but courtrooms have joined the modern world and added layers of technology to assist in the judicial process. We’ve come a long way since Colombo.
Technological and societal sophistication has had much influence on both judicial processes and tools. Consider the changes and advancements in every other sector over our lifetime and the courts, although inherently cautious, are no different.
Divergent types of courts need a range of technologies that are appropriate to that jurisdiction, budget and technical requirements. For example: a family court needs safe spaces for aggrieved parties; criminal remand hearings need easy access to prisoners; and civil courts are more reliant on good data handling.
The most common tech in any courtroom setting is audio enhancement and replay. This can vary in sophistication from a mic and speakers for the bench to VC integration, multiple mics and inputs, hearing loops and more.
Evidence replay now shows simultaneously on multiple screens and tablets about the room, distributing high-resolution video to bench, boxes, jury and gallery.
The biggest innovation in this space is a basic audio-visual link (AVL). These technologies have been available in Australian courts since the mid-1970s but really took off in the 1990s.
Early on, CCTV allowed remote witness participation but was limited by the scope of each building’s security network. It still required witnesses at the same site, albeit in another room. Satellite and ISDN links are still occasionally used to link remote sites but are expensive and limited compared to what can now be easily and securely achieved over IP.
Standard commercial IP-based VC systems (specifically Skype, Zoom, Teams, Jabber and Webex: all of which are currently variously used in Australian courts) are steadily taking over as the de-facto AVL tech. Security of transmission from prying eyes and unwanted parties has always been a priority for court AVL. As each authority gets comfortable with the security and stability of emerging systems they seem to get employed. In this sense, the sector is similar to commercial AV integration.
Security of data (particularly video access) is important for many AV users. With so much on the line for participants, it is especially important in the justice environment.
There are substantial cost and time savings using AVL. By avoiding travel to courts, scheduling of cases is far more efficient. It also has a major benefit in enabling vulnerable witnesses to avoid close contact with alleged offenders in courtrooms.
During the pandemic, AVL came to the fore. While social distancing and lockdowns were in place, almost all criminal proceedings across Australia were heard using AVL technologies. Even in our post-pandemic phase, AVL is still widely used in courts and is here to stay.
Displaying real-time video links and evidence requires not only the display screens but video processing, routing and distribution. Higher-spec systems may even include a non-linear editing suite (NLES) to manage video storage and routing.
One role that stays constant is that of the court reporter. All proceedings need to be accurately recorded for future reference. No longer a lone in-room stenographer creating reams of paper transcripts, these crucial roles can now be performed in another room. Further, records go straight to digital, allowing greater security and searchability. Video transcriptions, sub-titling and translations can all occur via AVL of some sort.
The Federal Court of Australia is moving rapidly into the digital realm. As of writing, they report not having created a paper file for over five years. Everything case related is digitised, allowing court officers and legal representatives instant access to up-to-date documents relevant to a particular case. Documents submitted via e-lodgement are transferred straight onto the digital court file, where they are immediately accessible to appropriate parties.
According to the Federal Court of Australia principal registrar and chief executive officer, Warwick Soden OAM: “Technology is being used to streamline court services. We plan in the future to move to a situation where hearings – predominantly all hearings, small medium and large – would be done in a digital environment in the courtroom.”
Case processing times are down across the board when AV tech (particularly communications methods like AVL) is used effectively. Research from multiple jurisdictions confirms this.
Electronic document lodgement has not only reduced paper mountains but saved considerable time for all parties involved. With legal fees being what they are, this represents great savings to users of the system too.
It’s not all roses. Some implementations of AVL have been hampered by tech problems, mainly in poor-quality video or intrusive environmental conditions. AVL in custodial locations can influence court and distract participants with background noise. This has been somewhat disadvantageous to plaintiffs in penal settings.
Further, even with good AV connections, there is an emotional disconnect between people at the other end of the line. The Law Council of Australia stated in 2018: “Sentencing via AVL was viewed as problematic because it dehumanises the court process and exacerbates community disengagement with the justice system, especially for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”
Lack of standardisation between states and jurisdictions means that the AV wheel is constantly reinvented. Consultant fees might add a cost layer but are essential for delivering tech solutions that are fit for purpose both now and down the track.
As technology becomes more sophisticated, court systems will inevitably deploy and rely on it. However, it will be a slow and steady trickle as each court decides on its own best approach. This will necessarily involve considerable i-dotting and t-crossing to eliminate any potential conflicts or grey areas that may arise when changing any process (such as AV technology).
Justice can be a ponderous system – it’s designed and run by word weasels – but it’s very careful in identifying and rectifying weak spots (in argument, evidence and process). Their supporting technology is and should be no different. When they have decided on a particular approach or course of action, they are all in.
Which all leads to good news for our industry. Melbourne-born design consultancy Portable sums it up best: “To AV integrators – you’ll have more than enough work to keep you busy for the next 30 years, so embrace it!”