Evidential leading courtroom tech charge
For 18 weeks in 2013 notorious police killer Dale Cregan was driven the 35 miles from his cell at HMP Manchester – which is better known as Strangeways – to Preston Crown Court.
Guarded by more than 150 police officers, the high speed convoy was a familiar sight to motorists on the M61 in a security operation that cost an eye-watering £5m.
Sean Murphy is the owner of Manchester-based expert witness company Evidential and says the case highlights the need to embed technology into the judicial system.
Evidential presents and interprets electronic evidence and Murphy says the trial of one-eyed Cregan had to be held in Preston as the Manchester courtrooms equipped with the necessary technology were not considered secure enough.
Murphy’s services as an expert witness has seen him involved in a succession of high-profile cases including Cregan, mass murderer Harold Shipman, murdered Liverpool schoolboy Rhys Jones and the tragic Morecambe Bay Cockle Pickers.
He estimates that the use of EPE – electronic presentation of evidence – in the latter saved around £500,000 in trial costs.
He founded Evidential in 2014 to push the boundaries of where technology could go in the legal system – quite a task when some courts have only recently got Wi-Fi.
“Most court cases, behind the scenes, are quite Rumpole of the Bailey traditional mahogany furniture with everyone wearing wigs and very little tech,” he told BusinessCloud. “A lot of the buildings are listed and very, very traditional.
“When I first started working in this industry, there was just a video player and a screen that they’d wheel around to different courtrooms. It’s gradually getting better.”
If Murphy gets his way – especially in the use of virtual reality – then the future of court cases will look very different.
VR has not yet been used in UK courtrooms but Evidential has created a fictional crime scene in a computer-generated two-bedroom house to show the potential benefits of introducing the tech.
Jonathan Symcox tries out the VR crime scene
However Murphy realised that there is a bigger opportunity for his firm in the VR space.
“What an important tool it could be for the training of police officers to handle emergency situations,” he said. “Every police station could have a VR headset and it could be used constantly to give officers experience to help with situations like the Manchester bombing in advance.
“Officers can immerse themselves and get an idea of the space before they actually go into it. They might then realise that there’s room behind a counter, for example, where someone could be hiding. They’d have much better spatial awareness of important entrances and exits.”
As well as saving lives it could also save the police huge amounts of money, according to Murphy.
“A few months ago they closed down the Trafford Centre for half a day so Greater Manchester Police could do a training exercise. It will have had a significant cost and trained a relatively small amount of emergency service personnel,” he added.
“There were officers doing their regular job who couldn’t come off duty to do the training, while Greater Manchester Police also received calls from the unaware members of the public – ‘I think there’s something horrible happening at the Trafford Centre’ – so you’ve got that social impact as well.
“The Metropolitan Police did something similar on the Tube system where they closed off parts of London and got actors involved – all at huge cost. We believe we can achieve all this in a VR headset.”
One place Britain should be looking to for inspiration is the Netherlands. Murphy has participated in war crimes trials among others at The Hague, which he describes as a “vision of the future” courtroom.
“The Hague is completely paperless,” he explained. “It’s what we should be aiming for: a purpose-built technology led courtroom.”
Evidential has a unique mix of former police staff, forensic specialists, designers, illustrators and developers but also taps into an extensive network of experts when needed. Being based in the Sharp Project has given Murphy, who has served within Greater Manchester Police himself in a support role, even more contacts with the opportunity to tap into a rich vein of innovation.
“We look at the TV, game and film industries and get ideas from them,” he said. “3D printers, drone cameras and virtual reality are all good examples of innovation that we’re trying to introduce.
“We give evidence in person in court cases, we represent complex evidence in graphics – that could be a 3D reconstruction of a crime scene, or a graph to show how funds have come in and out of someone’s account – and we do courtroom assistance, putting our software in courts so they can utilise the power of the EPE program. We’ve got about a dozen cases on the table at any one time.”
There is also an equipment provision side to the business: Evidential rents out tech such as TV screens or wireless headphones on a case-by-case basis. Murphy hopes to win a tender to provide this more formally to the Crown Prosecution Service.
Evidential is based in the Sharp Project
“Our prime area is Preston, Manchester and Liverpool, but we do have cases down at the Old Bailey and Southwark Crown Court and elsewhere,” he said.
“If something goes wrong, we have to be able to get there within two hours. We’re looking to open up a branch in London for that very reason whilst also increasing our customer base.”
Evidential was named by Creative England as one of its ‘Top 50 companies to watch’ in 2017 while Murphy personally was named as one of its 10 ‘Future Leaders’.
A £50,000 grant from the organisation was used to part-fund a virtual reality project which Murphy says could change the focus of the business.
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