Calgary courts put the ‘e’ into evidence

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By August this year, the city of Calgary is likely to have a networked complex of 73 courtrooms designed to handle presentation of digital evidence and remote video conferencing.

A $16.3 million deal signed between the Alberta government and telecommunications firm Telus Corp. will see Telus expand the use of video links already deployed in some 62 other courts and remand locations within the province.

Employing a fibre optic network, the new system will link separate areas of a building to create a “virtual courtroom,” according to Brian MacIntosh, vice-president, managed IT and collaboration solutions, Telus.

The high-definition tools will allow a witness to render testimony in one location, while an accused is in another area.

The use of video conferencing is especially useful when the safety of a witness may be compromised, or when other issues prevent a witness from physically appearing in court, according to a Toronto lawyer. For security reasons, “some courts, in the past, have allowed witnesses to appear in closed-circuit video conferences,” said George Takach, partner, co-manager and leader of technology group, McCarthy and Tetrault LLP.

He said similar systems have been set-up in Labrador, Orlando, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

Back in 2004, the court house in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador was rigged for video conferencing. The system saved the town thousands of dollars, as it did not have to fly witnesses in for every hearing.

“These developments show the justice system is well in step with the rest of the world. Over the last few years, courts have been very comfortable in admitting digital evidence,” Takach said.

He said technology is being used by courts in three key areas: database integration, evidence presentation, and electronic filing of dockets.

Acceptance of evidence, such as e-mails and text recorded in digital form, has been largely driven by the increasing use of these media to record transactions and correspondence, Takach said.

With the exception of Web site pages and digital photos that could be altered, “just about everything is now admissible,” he said.

However, Takach noted that increasing acceptance of digital evidence has also created a new set of challenges . “We have come full circle; now courts are receiving too much evidence.”

For instance, he said, Ontario’s Rules of Civil Procedure require parties to litigation to disclose to the other side every document relevant to the case that includes any information recorded or stored by means of any device.

He said the cost of strict compliance with this rule can easily run into seven figures. “Ironically much of the e-material that is produced is not very helpful.”

Takach pointed to the need for lawyers to get together and set limits on what e-evidence can be admitted in court.

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