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Will legal tech see an end to children in court?

Members of the legal profession who consider litigation support services and digital bundles a threat to the dusty old glamour of Court and chambers should take note: when a former Lord Chief Justice asserts that modern technology can and must support the administration of justice, the profession should follow.

At this year’s annual Bar Council law reform committee lecture former LCJ Lord Judge called for child witnesses to be kept out of court. He particularly called for an end to ‘bullying’ cross-examination techniques, and of repeated questioning by a series of advocates acting for several defendants.

Legal practitioners and observers alike will be familiar with a topic as sensitive as it is impassioned: the need to balance the two imperatives of testing the evidence whilst not placing vulnerable witnesses under undue strain has been a hot topic for twenty-five years.

The publication of the report of Lord Pigot’s Advisory Panel on Video Evidence in 1989 contributed to the decision to permit children to give evidence via video-link, but to date the courts have yet to ‘go the full Pigot’, and have cross-examination of child witnesses removed from open court.

In the years since the Pigot report child-protection organisations such as the NSPCC have lobbied for children to be removed entirely from the court arena, whilst the CPS and the Bar have necessarily been more cautious, citing the need for barristers to have liberty to examine the evidence.

A telling aspect of Lord Judge’s speech was his emphasis on the importance of technology. He said, “We are at the very beginning of what will become a significant change in the entire trial process, a consequence of modern technology, properly applied to the administration of justice.”

Such an astute assessment will be music to the ears of those who have long recognised the need to bring the latest developments in tech to the courts.

We do not yet know whether the time will come when vulnerable witnesses are no longer seen at the stand – and the debate will go on as to whether this is a wholly desirable aim. But the progress of legal tech such as eDisclosure and eDiscovery is undeniable, and unstoppable – and if lawyers are to harness the power of the latest innovations they should continue to work closely with professional partners such as Legastat.