Virtual reality experience helps demystify the family court process

As part of the Greater Manchester Court plan, a new virtual reality court experience has been designed to help demystify the family court process.

The project, supported by government and the judiciary, has been described as pioneering – claimed to be the first of its kind in the UK. The purpose is to help children, involved in vulnerable care or protection proceedings, understand what is happening and feel less intimidated or fearful of the court system. It can help children to understand how decisions about them are being made. The technology could also be beneficial for helping vulnerable adult witnesses providing evidence.

The project, devised by legal experts from the University of Salford, involves children watching a video with a virtual reality headset to get a clearer picture of how the courts work. The video can help children to understand what it is like entering the building and going through security. Crucially, it shows what it is like in a court room as the process of a court hearing is captured on film for children to watch. This innovative virtual reality experience could also be beneficial for those attending the youth court. Many young people in the justice system often find court a disengaging experience. The language used by magistrates is often complicated legal jargon. Power inequalities exist and they often only provide basic information, feeling, at times, their views are rendered invalid. Using this technology with children, prior to attending the youth court could potentially result in them feeling less anxious and increase their willingness to participate in proceedings.

To digress slightly, it is worth remembering, meaningful participation – where children influence change and shape decision-making processes – has the potential to be an empowering and life-changing experience. This was discussed at a Clinks event I attended with Peer Power, Everton in the Community and Beyond Youth Custody. The purpose of the event was to share best practice and discuss the challenges associated with youth participation. It was argued participation should not be tokenistic but rather young people should be treated as assets to the service.

Similarly, at a Peer Power event at Edge Hill University last week, it was argued youth justice and children’s services should prioritise building empathic relationships – creating a sense of mutual respect, trust and belonging. In addition to creating an emotionally safe workforce, Peer Power advocated shared decision-making and children’s voices being listened to and acted upon throughout systems.

However, children attending the youth court continue to find it a disempowering experience. They are often unsure of requirements and processes. For example, many of my PhD participants described the court process as scary and confusing.

The new virtual reality court experience could be adapted and used with children who are required to attend the youth court. It could help to demystify the process and make children feel more comfortable and relaxed about proceedings.

Sean Creaney is a Lecturer in Psychosocial Analysis of Offending Behaviour in the Faculty of Health & Social Care at Edge Hill University. He is a former Trustee at the National Association for Youth Justice. He is currently an advisor at the social justice charity Peer Power, and a PhD candidate at Liverpool John Moores University. He also writes The Youth Justice Blog in Children and Young People Now.

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