Coming soon - maybe - to a courtroom near you: Crime scenes presented in virtual reality. Expert witnesses testifying over a videolink. Real-time transcription services allowing judges or jurors to refresh their memories of yesterday's testimony with just a keystroke. Complex documents arriving in minutes across telephone lines. And with more legal information appearing on the Internet, lawyers may soon evolve into "legal information engineers" and their clients into "legal information users."
New technologies are holding out the prospect of swifter, more efficient, more consistent redress of grievances in both the criminal and civil justice systems.
Leading the charge for high-tech justice is Australia, along with the United States and Singapore. The Australian Law Reform Commission has been reviewing the use of new technologies in the country's federal civil courts and tribunals. A recently released ALRC report notes, "Australians are among the most enthusiastic users of technology.... Australia also has one of the highest per capita ratios of ownership of personal computers and use of networks."
Moreover, because Australia has many different court systems that operate somewhat independently of one another, "You have different parts of the garden creating different flowers," says Michael Barnett, ALRC leader and a report author.
Legal experts say by improving access to the justice system, communities with shrinking legal-aid services and people of limited means will benefit. But the innovations raise questions, too.
Their use imposes on courts an implicit responsibility "to ensure that juries are not swayed by gee-whiz technology," as Mr. Barnett puts it. "Judges have to say, 'I know this is very impressive technology, but the issue is what happened?' "
A profitable prospect
High-tech justice could even be a factor in international trade. Australia's export of legal services increased from $72.5 million in 1993-94 to $107 million in 1995-96.
The ALRC report suggests that this sector could do even better if Australia's law firms make the most of online resources, market themselves over the Internet, and learn how to put together the kind of video presentations that not only inform but also wow juries and judges around the Pacific Rim.
Singapore is another country seeing high-tech justice as a trade opportunity. "Singapore is leading the way" in going after international dispute-resolution business, says Barnett.
The government of Singapore sees a high-tech court infrastructure as a way to draw in international legal business. "The courts and tribunals can be regarded in this context as export earners," the ALRC report noted.
Much of the new technology - high-quality videoconferencing to replace face-to-face meetings, for example - will be used more in civil than in criminal cases. Civil litigation often involves large corporations that can afford the expensive equipment.
In Canada - another large country with a relatively small but well-wired population - forays are also being made into high-tech justice. "British Columbia has made a substantial commitment to videoconferencing," says Fredric Lederer, a professor at the William & Mary College of Law in Williamsburg, Va.
"We're a big country, a big province," says Arthur Close, chairman of the British Columbia Law Institute. "When you have Lawyer 1 in one location, Lawyer 2 in another, and the judge in a third, the idea of getting together by videoconference is appealing."
But in his view, courts are more receptive to the new technologies in the early phases of a proceeding, when there are procedural matters or "purely legal arguments" to be made.
At the trial itself, Mr. Close says, "The experienced trial counsel wants to have the person in front of him - to see how he reacts to questions.... There's still a sense that people want to be able to watch the witness sweat."
Less paper, quicker results
High-tech justice is not, however, just about high-quality videolinks. The Canadian province of Ontario has launched something called the Integrated Justice Project. This is intended to reengineer the information flow between different computer systems used by the courts and police forces of the four levels of government in the province: federal, provincial, regional, and municipal.
"Right now, all the transfer of information is done on paper," says Eric Cohen, manager of policy and business planning for the project.
He points out that a lawyer who requests a document gets a box of paper. Many steps have to be repeated - and repeated.
In the case of an arrest, the police may have to record a suspect's name and address as many as 13 different times. "We're trying to get the different systems to talk to each other.... We're told that what we're doing is the biggest project of its type in North America," says Mr. Cohen.