Virtual Reality and the UK Courts

Virtual Reality (VR) appears to be the next big sensation across the world, another technological advancement which appears to have occurred overnight and taken the nation by storm. Virtual Reality allows users to experience one of the most life-like experiences which technology has been able to provide so far. Their ability to replicate real-life experiences is evidenced in a number of videos which, at the expense of the user, went viral. An example of this is Ronnie O’Sullivan’s experience of playing snooker using the VR headset. When preparing to play a shot, O’Sullivan attempted to lean on the snooker table which, as you can imagine, ended in a somewhat confused Ronnie O’Sullivan collapsing onto the floor. It is easy to see why the VR headsets have become such a huge sensation. However, it is rare that the words ‘Virtual Reality’ and ‘UK Courts’ are uttered in the same sentence.

Transporting Juries to the Crime Scene

This, however, could change following research conducted by Staffordshire University. During 2016, Staffordshire University was provided with a £140,000 research grant from the European Commission, for a project which looked at the potential uses of VR within the UK legal system. The main element of Staffordshire University’s research looked into the potential of using VR headsets to transport juries to the crime scene. This would provide several obvious benefits. Firstly, barristers would be able to walk jury members through the crime scene as though they were actually there. This would make it significantly easier for jury members to follow evidence provided by both the defence and the prosecution.

In addition, it would prove beneficial to members of the jury who are more capable of retaining photographic information than written or spoken information, leading to more informed decisions. Furthermore, studies have shown that the human mind can only focus on so many pieces of information at one time which, in criminal trials, could lead to confusion if too much information is provided to the jury. The use of VR externalises this information. As a result, jury members are not required to remember all the information, as this is provided for them using the VR headset. If a jury member can not remember a specific piece of information, they can simply wear the VR headset and view the information for themselves.

Virtual Reality and Litigants in Person

Another way in which the VR headsets could be used is to prepare persons appearing in court without legal representation, often referred to as litigants in person (LIP). On the 14th January 2016, a House of Commons Briefing Paper, ‘Litigants in Person: the Rise of the Self-Represented Litigants in Civil and Family Cases‘, was released, looking at the increase in the number of LIPs as a result of changes made to legal aid in the UK. It is clear from the evidence that, since the implementation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, the number of LIPs has increased. In fact, the National Audit Office has reported a 30% increase in family law cases with both parties appearing without any legal representation. As a result, in the January-March period of 2013-14, 80% of family cases has at least one party without legal representation.

The effects of this rise in the number of LIPs is clear from the evidence presented in the briefing paper. A study which was carried out for the Ministry of Justice by several University employees analysed 151 cases in five courts. From the cases analysed, it was shown that only a small minority of LIPs were capable of representing themselves competently at all times during the family law proceedings. This, in turn, slows down court proceedings and consequently costs the court a great deal of money. It is clear, that while there continues to be insufficient funding for legal aid, that there is a need to consider other ways of preparing LIPs for court.

Virtual Reality could, over time, provide the solution to this problem. It is likely that a large number of LIPs will never have experienced family court procedures. Virtual Reality could, potentially, provide LIPs with a life-like replication of the court procedures, including the rules and orders of the court, how proceedings are carried out and allow the LIP to become accustomed to the layout of the court which, to those who have not yet experienced civil or family proceedings, can often become daunting. There could even be an interactive element, making the replication even more realistic. Of course, this could take some time to develop, but the benefits could mitigate the problems which have been caused by the changes to legal aid.

Virtual Reality and Defendants

Finally, Virtual Reality could be used to assist solicitors and barristers in preparing their clients for a criminal law trial. The criminal justice system has, in the past, been criticised for not sufficiently preparing defendants for trials. With the defendant’s liberty is at stake, the effects could prove to be devastating. In preparation for criminal procedures, Virtual Reality could transport the defendant to the court, where the solicitor or barrister could conduct his or her examination of the defendant and conduct a mock cross-examination. This method would be more likely to prepare the defendant for his or her trial and ensure that they are able to adapt to the court scene.

It seems that Virtual Reality is set to become the next piece of technology to radicalise the UK court system, with changes which would likely prove helpful to court users and even to practitioners working in the court. It also has the potential to reduce costs by providing smoother proceedings. These suggestions are likely to sound absurd or far-fetched to a large number of people. However, it is important to remember just how rapidly and how far technology has developed. It is essential to ensure that we are able to make the most of technology, in order to advance the legal system further and Virtual reality is one system which, in future, could be incorporated in the UK Court system.

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