Virtual Trip in Coal Mine Case

Advocates of new technologies in the courtroom are alert to some of the concerns over "virtual justice."

Some question whether the gadgetry will simply get in the way, undercutting the legitimacy and dignity of trials.

Richard Mohr, a law professor at the University of Wollongong, south of Sydney, has studied high-tech justice in action and says, "I think in some ways technology can help - but it has to be done carefully."

Professor Mohr attended a judicial inquiry last summer into an accident in which four coal miners died at Gretley, New South Wales, in December 1996.

The miners apparently drowned after tunneling by mistake into an old part of the mine that was full of water and gas.

It would have been dangerous for the judge and others involved in the inquiry to visit the accident site.

Instead, the court witnessed a "virtual reality" presentation of the mine in a way that "made the whole thing very clear," Mohr says, not only for the court officers but for the grieving families and members of the public who wanted to understand what had happened.

"All the maps in evidence, the photos, and so on, were scanned in, and projected on video screens in the courtroom. There was good visibility - for the public too," he adds.

In his report on the inquiry, Mohr wrote: "The court has become more mobile - to the extent that the data on which court and counsel rely is available in cyberspace."

The findings of the inquiry are to be handed down next month.

The judge may determine the cause of death, as a coroner would, and may recommend improvements in mine safety procedures.

He may also decide to recommend criminal prosecutions.

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