The technology of the Saville tribunal

By | 29th June 2010

The report by Lord Saville into what happened in (London)Derry on 30th January 1972, which has become known as Bloody Sunday, was published on 15th June 2010. 

Much has already been written about it. The statistics are there for all to see. It took 12 years, it cost £190 million, there were approximately 2,500 written statements and the opening statement was the longest in English legal history. The tribunal heard from almost 1,000 witnesses, sat in Derry and in London and spawned judicial review litigation which reached the then House of Lords (now the Supreme Court). 

As I have mentioned earlier [Bloody Sunday, 22nd June, 2010] I was involved for the best part of six years in gathering the evidence for the Tribunal but little of my time was spent in the actual hearings apart from listening to one or two witnesses of particular interest.

After all, how often does one get to hear a former Prime Minister (Edward Heath) give evidence after having interviewed him? To my knowledge, it is only on rare occasions that Prime Ministers or former Prime Ministers give evidence in public, such as Margaret Thatcher in the Franks Inquiry and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to the Chilcott Inquiry. It is a very modern phenomenon. 

It is the modern aspect of the inquiry which has just caught my attention. I have not yet assimilated all 5,000 pages of the report but have cast my eye over the summary and I have found a short section on the technology used by the tribunal which I would like to share with you. 

Much has been said about the slowness and the cost of the inquiry but I suspect that the whole process would have proved impossible without technology. 

Tucked away at the end of Volume X of the report under the unassuming heading of Appendix 1: Matters Relating to the Inquiry are a few paragraphs on the systems in use – the section on technology is at paragraphs A.1.1.184 to 194 (approx. 4/5 down the page).

The main points are as follows: 

  • Substantial use was made of technology. Material obtained by the tribunal was given to the interested parties electronically and at the hearings the system used was TrialPro 11.
  • In the Guildhall in Derry there were two screens, one used to display the document being referred to and the other a video image of the person speaking. Arrangements were made to relay those images to various other locations in the city and when the inquiry moved to London the images were relayed to all the Northern Ireland locations.
  • The proceedings were recorded using LiveNote. This involved a truly stupendous effort by the stenographers who produced a record on screen within seconds, a daily transcript some two hours after the end of the day’s hearings and a daily electronic version which was posted on the inquiry website. The proceedings were also recorded on audio tape which proved to be a useful backup in case of any misunderstandings about what had been said.
  • There was a virtual reality model of the relevant parts of Derry showing what the area looked like in the early 1990s with another version where artists’ impressions of the buildings which existed in 1972 were superimposed and this was used to assist many of the witnesses in their evidence.
  • The tribunal found that it was much quicker to show a witness an electronic version of a paper document rather than to wait for all concerned to turn up the same paper version from amongst hundreds of lever arch files. Also, the use of technology enabled the public to see much more of the workings of the tribunal than would have been the case had paper only been used and the CCTV cameras meant that the public could watch the proceedings in remote locations without having to travel to the hearings.
  • The members of the Tribunal made extensive use of laptops onto which versions of LiveNote and TrialPro 11 had been loaded which meant that they too could work remotely.
  • Finally, some of the information technology systems were deployed in other hearings. I can vouch for their use in the Shipman Inquiry (in which I was also involved) and they were also used in the BCCI litigation, the inquest into the Omagh bombings and other ongoing Northern Ireland Inquiries (Nelson, Hammill and Wright). 

Whatever views may be expressed about the cost of the inquiry and the time it took to reach its conclusions, the use of technology was a positive factor. Much of what was used is now no longer at the cutting edge as technology moves on so quickly, but at the time its use was clearly of great advantage to those engaged on the inquiry and the wider public. Given its later use, the cost of it was also spread over a number of other inquiries and hearings.