In May 2007, three men appeared before a British court, accused of inciting terrorist activity on a web forum frequented by Islamic fundamentalists. As a key witness was cross-examined, the judge presiding over the case was forced to interject.
“The trouble is I don’t understand the language,” admitted Judge Peter Openshaw. “I don't really understand what a website is.” Judge Openshaw later had to request that an expert “keep it simple. We’ve got to start with the basics.”
The problem for the judiciary is only going to get worse. Increasingly evidence presented before courts has some element of technology involved: as businesses and people use computers to store documents, the evidence being presented comes in the form of emails or other electronic documents.
In the US steps are already underway to address the lack of technical know-how among Judges. The University of Denver’s Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System recently published a guidebook, advising judges on how to deal with the process of e-discovery.
No such training scheme yet exists in the UK. However, perhaps British judges can be excused for their reluctance to engage with technology: the Libra project, designed to national computer system for magistrates’ courts, was last year described as the “worst IT project” ever.