Computers in the Courtroom


  1. Introduction
  2. Room Layout
  3. Digital Evidence
  4. Volume of Evidence

    See Also

  5. Computers and Telecommuncations
  6. Other Technology
  7. Home


This week I attended a hearing of the Oil for Food inquiry. It was an interesting to see the use of IT in a courtroom type environment.

By Letters Patent dated 10 November 2005, the Hon TRH Cole AO RFD QC was appointed Commissioner to conduct an inquiry into and report on whether decisions, actions, conduct or payments by Australian companies mentioned in the Final Report ("Manipulation of the Oil-for-Food Programme by the Iraqi Regime") of the Independent Inquiry Committee into the United Nations Oil-for-Food Programme breached any Federal, State or Territory law.

The Inquiry was instigated following the expressed wish of the Secretary-General of the United Nations Mr Kofi Annan in a statement issued on 27 October 2005 with the release of the Committee's report (the Volcker Report) that "national authorities will take steps to prevent the recurrence of such practices in the future and that they will take action, where appropriate, against companies falling within their jurisdiction."

On 3 February 2006 Commissioner Cole indicated in a Statement made in Hearings that he would seek to have his Terms of Reference amended to broaden the scope of this Inquiry in certain areas. On 6 February 2006 revised Letters Patent were issued setting down the requested changes to the Terms of Reference.

The Inquiry has the powers conferred by the Royal Commissions Act 1902.

From: "Inquiry into certain Australian companies in relation to the UN Oil-For-Food Programme", Attorney-General's Department, 2006

Much of the evidence was born digital: that is it consisted of email messages which were created in digital format and presented in the hearing room in digital format and made available publicly via the web. For a discussion of the nature and role of digital documents see: "Metadata and Electronic Document Management".

Room Layout

The hearing is being held in a court room which has been equipped with extensive computer equipment. The layout is similar to one I observed at the ACT Coroner's Bushfire Inquiry, but better equipped and better laid out.

There are approximately 20 desktop computers and laptops in the room. Most of the equipment appears to be from DELL, with large DELL LCD monitors (19 inch?) dominating the room, along with two wall mounted projection screens (with projectors ceiling mounted).

The commissioner has three screens on his raised bench (one at the front and one on each side). While this makes it convenient to see a screen, it results in the lawyers and observers in the body of the room being unable to see the commissioner much of the time. Similarly it must be difficult for the commissioner to see the lawyers and observers. Teleprompter screens, as used for speeches, may be useful in this application. These would have an LCD display flat on the desk, with a transparent screen reflecting the image to the user. The room would be able to see the commissioner through the screen.

The room is arranged with the commissioner at one end and the public at the other. Commission staff sit nearer the commissioner and lawyers facing them. On one side the witness faces into the room and Counsel assisting the inquiry (usually asking the questions) on the other side. The witness and the Counsel each have a screen in front of them. This overcomes a problem which the ACT Coroner's Bushfire Inquiry had where the witness had to turn away from the screen displaying the evidence in order to answer questions from the Coroner.

All the screens in the room, along with two projection screens display documents in evidence. In addition, legal staff seem to be able to select other documents and perform searches in a separate window.

Digital Evidence

Exhibits for the inquiry are available in electronic format via the inquiry's web site. This includes printed paper documents, handwritten notes and drawings which have been scanned, as well as email messages. The business of the inquiry depends on this information, with witnesses being asked "Did you read this email or not?" and "You were provided with the web address were you not?".

Each exhibit appears to be in the form of a single PDF file. Documents scanned from paper have a barcode sticker on them with a reference number and a barcode. Email messages, such as EXH_0305 AWB.5020.0262 have a reference number in the header and footer. Some email messages have been scanned from paper, as indicated by the bit mapped text of hand written notations, binder holes and skewed text. However, most are from a digital source, as indicated by character encoding (rather than bit mapped image). The PDF document properties indicate that Acrobat Distiller (6.0.1) was used to create the email files.

The email documents are inefficiently encoded. As an example a 3kbyte email message is stored as a 12 kbyte PDF document, with most space taken up by embedded fonts. No embedded fonts should be needed, as the text of the email messages could be displayed using the inbuilt Courier font in PDF.

In some ways the storage of the email messages is too good. The PDF is hyperlinked with email addresses. Placing the cursor over an email address in a document and clicking will result in a mail message being created addressed to that person. This could cause inconvenience and embarrassment to both the sender and the recipient and would be better if this was disabled.

While digital copies of mail messages are provided, they appear to have been edited. Only the From, Sent, To and Subject header fields of the message are provided. Other fields normally included with a message, particularly Message-ID, References and Received, are not provided. These could be useful in checking the authenticity of the messages and how complete the set of messages is provided. As an example the Reference field could be used to help verify that one mail message is actually a reply to another.

The scanned documents are relatively efficiently encoded as black and white (two color) bitmaps at 300 DPI. However, some cases there are coloured covers on documents where text is barely discernable.

Volume of Evidence

One issue which this inquiry brings out is the volume of material which someone may receive in a working day and how much they can reasonably read. At such an inquiry a witness may be asked if they had read an email message addressed to them. Given the volume of messages someone would receive in a day, it would be reasonable to say that you were not sure you had read the whole of a message, if if the system indicated you had opened it. But this sounds evasive in a court-like setting. Perhaps future email systems will record what parts of a message the user accessed and how long for.

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