Paperless Trials – a perspective from the witness box

Appearing at Southwark Crown Court as the Crown’s Forensic Accounting expert in the three-month fraud trial of Crown Currency before Judge Michael Gledhill QC, I was faced with the prospect of having to give evidence on some very complex financial matters without the comfort of my ‘experts bundle’.

The Crown Currency case is the first criminal trial in history to use iPads in a bid to reduce paperwork. The paperless court case is being piloted as part of a Crown Prosecution Service initiative, representing the increased digitalisation of the judicial process. The first paperless trial was held in Birmingham in 2013, since when there have been less than a dozen cases.

Certainly so far as technology is concerned, I am far from being a Luddite as technology is essential to much of the work that I do as a forensic accountant – from investigating accounting records to recovery of data from computers. However, I was like many, particularly sceptical about how a ‘paperless trial’ would work in a large and complex financial fraud case.

The most essential tool in the forensic accountant’s armoury is the Excel spreadsheet and it is this, which forms the backbone of the forensic accountant’s report. The written report is invariably backed up by dozens, if not hundreds of spreadsheets, all interlinked through to simple summaries of the key data.

Presenting reams of financial data for use in court proceedings can be quite daunting, as accountant’s attention to detail can detract from the key findings – very much a case of not being able to see the wood for the trees, which can easily confuse the lay reader.

Reducing a complex series of Excel spreadsheets down to single pages for presentation to the jury requires an appreciation of the manner in which prosecution counsel will want to conduct the case. It is essential that the presentation is as clear as possible with only the key elements shown. So in preparation for the trial, a series of simplified data was produced that would form the electronic ‘court bundle’ to be used in the trial.

Going on to the witness stand clasping my two level arch files containing my report, I had a sense of comfort, that should things go wrong with the technology that I would be able to simply revert back to my paper copy.

Having taken the stand, the jury were directed to the relevant tab on the screen of the iPad, this being replicated on a large display screen for my benefit to the right of the witness stand.

On the directions of the prosecutor Peter Grieves-Smith, the jury were guided through the bundle by means of simply selecting the relevant page number on screen, with the results displayed instantly. I could then deal with the questions asked of me without worrying about scrabbling to find the right page in a paper bundle.

On the whole, the experience of using the system in the witness box was easy and worked perfectly. The dedicated system operator took care of the page management for me, scrolling up or down the page as the evidence was discussed. The ability to scroll around the page, using the pinch function to enlarge or contract the page, or flipping forwards or backwards – all features that anyone used to an tablet will appreciate, made the whole process very easy for the jury and for me.

Over the course of giving my evidence, the only minor hitch was when the large display screens blanked out. I was given an iPad and continued my evidence with the minimum of disruption.

Whilst the Crown Currency case amply demonstrated the effectiveness of the ‘paperless trial’ and allowed my evidence to be dealt with quickly and with the minimum of fuss, the case itself was not representative of what might be expected in a complex fraud trial.

My forensic accountant’s report was uncontested as it dealt comprehensively with all the matters put before the jury. Although there were six defendants in the case, the need for a detailed cross-examination was removed, thus negating the need to go into the report and underlying figures in great depth.

The Jury’s still out…

In conclusion, whether a paperless trial would be as effective in another fraud case where the evidence is challenged is another matter – on this, I feel that the jury’s still out.

Shaun Walbridge FCCA MAE MEWI

© Forensic Accounting Ltd – 2015

Shaun Walbridge is the head of Matrix Forensic Accounting & Investigations and specialises in criminal and confiscation matters. Shaun has given evidence for both the prosecution and defence; he was the key prosecution expert in the Crown Currency fraud, which involved 13,000 victims with an estimated loss of £20m. Shaun also undertakes commercial work and has given evidence in the High Court on both sides.
Shaun Walbridge head of Matrix Forensic Accounting & Investigations

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