commentary The seemingly steeped-in-tradition Federal Court surprised a few observers last week when it coolly accepted Twitter's presence in its rooms. But its broader approach to technology is nothing short of ambiguous.
For a court system that has in many ways yet to technologically evolve, its handling of Twitter's arrival was impressive. Federal Court chief executive Warwick Soden effectively said the court was fine with the practice, so long as the judge was.
It made the court seem like, well, "an early adopter". OK, it didn't use Twitter itself, but it wasn't averse to it being used to communicate to the public from within the court — a much cooler approach than the US Tennis Association's take on it, which raised the ire of Andy Roddick earlier this year.
Justice Dennis Cowdroy, presiding over the case, went a step further, telling The Australian, that Twitter may even have it over "traditional media". "Twittering can serve to inform the public in a more speedy and comprehensive manner than may be possible through traditional media coverage," Cowdroy was reported as saying.
Despite the court's "suck it and see" approach to the use of Twitter by the public or journalists within the court, its broader approach to technology is fractured.
As Stilgherrian pointed out, if Twitter is allowed, perhaps it's time for video and sound transmission equipment too? By the way, if you're thinking of popping in to the court on 2 November when the #iitrial restarts, forget bringing image and audio transmission equipment — two very big no-nos. ZDNet.com.au had its video camera minded by guards at the metal detector gates for the duration of its presence at the court.
But, if you have an iPhone, BlackBerry or Nokia with a camera embedded in the device, don't worry, you can — as solicitors, judges, barristers and litigants do each day — bring them in. Just don't use the photographic features unless you're curious about what it feels like to be kicked out of court.
If you were sitting in Cowdroy's courtroom for the eight days of the iiNet vs. AFACT trial, you would have witnessed some very impressive video conferencing equipment. Admittedly, the court hasn't gone for high-end Cisco TelePresence or HP Halo systems, so there were a few latency issues when Hollywood executives were being cross-examined by video link, but the court was not unfamiliar with video-conferencing. The court had also installed automated shades for easier viewing from the sun-drenched room on the 18th floor.
The worst evidence of the Federal Court's adoption of technology is its handling of documents. Yes, there is "eDiscovery", and yes it has processes to handle digital evidence, but go to any court today and you will see an overwhelming amount of paper. Literally dozens of vans deliver tonnes of paper to clerks outside the court, who then lug them on trolleys through the courts. Why are these documents, which were probably written on a PC in the first place, not re-digitised?
And try to get an electronic version of otherwise "publicly-available" affidavits and submissions in relation to a case... Fat chance, unless you have the time to walk down to the court, pay the photocopying charge, and haul the paper back to your office.
None of this is really denigrating the Federal Court. The various branches of the public sector are notoriously slow to adopt new technology compared with the private sector, and they have to be especially sensitive to its impact due to the need to continue to serve justice and avoid wrongly persecuting individuals.
But it does go a little towards demonstrating how far the court has to go before truly being seen as up-to-date with the modern age.