“My whole brain is in there,” said the Canadian lawyer Sean Robichaud as his MacBook computer was declared by a magistrate to be unsuitable for the courtroom. The magistrate aborted the criminal trial and adjourned it until August so that Mr Robichaud could use a printer or fountain pen to carry out the necessary brain transplant to paper folders.
Computers are used throughout the Canadian court system, and the Supreme Court even provides them for lawyers. Why this particular usage was ruled unlawful is a mystery. The case arose from an event on the roads of Ontario. Piotr Lakomy, Mr Robichaud’s client, had been beginning a session of stunt-driving in his Subaru Impreza when he was arrested by police and charged with criminal offences.
As the Crown prosecutor stood up to launch her case, she noticed Mr Robichaud had just switched on his thin, aluminium MacBook. She objected to its use and the magistrate accepted her point, ruling the laptop to be an “electronic recording device” and therefore something prohibited in court.
Mr Robichaud explained that as all his case notes and preparatory materials were on the computer he would be unable to represent his client to the best of his ability without the laptop. It was at that point that the case was adjourned. Later, Mr Robichaud said “I went through law school using only a laptop. I can’t even write anymore. Sometimes I don’t even have a pen”.
In other courts he uses his computer regularly to access case law, documents, and evidence, and to store witness statements. Banning the computer because it was capable of being used as a recording device was decidedly odd because the lawyer had no intention of using it in that way. Mr Robichaud noted “it’s like saying I have the capability to punch someone in the face, and therefore I have to keep my hands in my pockets.”
Explaining the magistrate’s decision to exclude the laptop, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Attorney-General said that all magistrates and judges have full power over their courts so decisions on which electronic devices to permit are within the discretion they can exercise.
Most judges are now computer-literate. In 2007 a British judge caused an outcry when he said that he didn’t understand the term “website” but that wasn’t because he was trapped in world of parchment and quill pens. He just needed a technical explanation of how a website, like the one in the criminal case before him, was constructed.
Historically, judges have been more likely to object to lawyers’ accessories than their technologies. No advocate has been sent out for having a computer but, at different times, counsel have been judicially denounced for appearing in court with a beard, a white waistcoat, a ponytail, bracelets, brown suede shoes, earrings, and a priest’s cassock.
Gary Slapper is Professor of Law at The Open University.