Juries of the future could be ‘transported’ to crime scenes using virtual reality headsets

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By Katie King on

Staffordshire University-led research hopes to revolutionise the way lawyers present criminal cases in court

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Virtual reality headsets look set to make their criminal court system debut, thanks to a pioneering tech project at Staffordshire University.

In stark contrast to the reams of paper and blurry CCTV images that have become associated with criminal trials, future jurors could be asked to wear headsets — like those used in the gaming industry — that “transport” them to virtual crime scenes.

This has immense potential to shake up the criminal justice system, particularly the way lawyers present their cases to jury members. Dr Caroline Sturdy Colls, an associate professor at Staffordshire University, hopes the headsets will “help jurors in court to understand those crimes better that they ever did before.”

Speaking to Legal Cheek, she added:

Traditional means of documenting, sketching and photographing crime scenes can be laborious and they don’t provide data suitable for presentation in court to non-experts. A number of novel, digital, non-invasive methods used in archaeology, computing and games design present the opportunity to increase search efficiency and accuracy and provide more effective means of presenting evidence in court.

The project — backed by a European Commission research grant amounting to £140,000 — is ground-breaking and, according to Colls, the first project of its kind on the continent.

It is, however, only one of many emerging and future technological developments changing the landscape of legal practice and education. The emergence of FinTech — the new, techy-driven way of providing financial services — is being hailed as a hot new practice area for young lawyers. There’s plans for new, lawyer free courts that run totally online, a bit like eBay’s dispute resolution system, and talk of computer games to teach litigants-in-person the do’s and don’ts of courtroom etiquette.

No corner of the legal profession appears to be free from the growing stronghold of technology, and now it’s the criminal justice system’s turn to have its own tech makeover.

Or is it?

Well, initial feedback about the project is certainly promising. One reporter who had a go at wearing the headset herself described the virtual experience as “incredibly real”. She explained:

If a barrister could do this, he or she could easily show the jury the scene of the crime without any confusion. It’s so detailed. It’s not like putting on some 3D glasses — this is another level.

Plus, at a cost of £700 per headset, the tech has been described by Staffordshire Police as affordable — and peanuts compared to the costs involved in transporting juries the old-fashioned way to a crime scene and providing them with a guided tour.

The criminal justice system is, however, characteristically slow, traditional and resistant to change, so it remains to be seen when — or if — we will see gaming-esque headsets in our local Crown Courts in the future.