Alberta video network turns Calgary courtrooms virtual

A new video communications network aims to combine the City of Calgary’s 73 courtrooms into one virtual room, designed to handle the presentation of digital evidence and remote video-conferencing.

The Alberta provincial government has signed a $16.3 million deal with telecommunications company Telus Corp. that will expand the use of video links already deployed in 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 one massive virtual courtroom, according to Brian MacIntosh, vice-president of managed IT and collaboration for 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.

“In the past, some courts have allowed witnesses to appear in closed-circuit video-conferences,” says George Takach , a partner and technology group leader of McCarthy and Tetrault LLP.

Takach says similar systems have been set up in Labrador, Orlando, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Back in 2004, for example, the courthouse in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador, was rigged for video-conferencing, which meant witnesses did not have to fly into town 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 says.

Technology is being used by courts in three key areas, he adds, pointing to 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 says. With the exception of Web pages and digital photos that could be altered, almost everything is now admissible, he adds.

However, Takach notes 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, Ontario’s Rules of Civil Procedure require parties to litigation to disclose every document relevant to the case that includes any information recorded or stored by means of any device, Takach explains.

He says 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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