Virtual Reality in Access to Justice

Matthew joined the A2J Lab at the end of July to help study how we can best use technology to bring access to justice. One of the first technologies he set out to study was Virtual Reality.

Technology moves quickly and how emerging technology can increase access to justice is of great importance to the A2J Lab. It is equally important to be cautious of the hype in new technologies and to study them before investing significant resources nationwide.

Virtual Reality (VR) is a great example of this idea. The concept has been around for decades but only recently has the technology caught up to create a seamless experience. For those of you scratching your heads about how VR works, it allows a user to put on a special headset, which generates an artificial environment. The headset has two separate screens, one for each eye, which allows the headset to generate the illusion of depth. The headsets can additionally detect when you are turning your head, allowing you to look around the newly generated environment. The more expensive headsets will even allow you to interact with the environment. This technology holds endless potential in everything from gaming to education.

In the access to justice context, one idea would be to use a special video camera to record mock court hearings in the areas of law that legal aid frequently handles (think debt collection, landlord/tenant, and expungement). By using a special camera that records in every direction at once, the resulting video can be viewed using a VR helmet. This allows the wearer to be “transported” into the courtroom and watch a hearing as if they were standing in the middle of the courtroom. The videos would allow the wearer to get a sense of what questions will be asked, what evidence is important, how evidence should be introduced, and in general how the hearing will proceed. The theory we are planning to test is whether viewing a mock hearing in VR will make the wearer less nervous and better prepared, in turn leading to a better outcome.

The two main groups who would likely benefit from this VR experience are pro-se litigants and pro bono/legal aid attorneys. Pro-se litigants frequently find the court system scary and confusing. Fear of the unknown and the failure to understand how to defend themselves leads to many litigants failing to appear. Those who do appear may not understand what evidence is needed or how to articulate their thoughts. Our hope is watching a mock hearing in VR first will allow pro-se litigants to overcome this fear and better understand the legal process. Similarly, attorneys can benefit from these VR videos as well. New attorneys have limited courtroom experience and more experienced attorneys may be nervous about taking pro bono cases where the legal area is far removed from their daily practice. Watching mock hearings in VR can be used to calm the nerves of attorneys and introduce them to court specific procedures that until now could only be obtained through experience.

The A2J Lab put a call out for partners who were also interested in studying VR interventions a few weeks ago and the number of responses was astounding. Organizations from all over the nation were interested in studying VR and each brought unique ideas on implementation. One study in development is a partnership between the A2J Lab, the Barristers Club of the San Francisco Bar Association, and the Justice and Diversity Center of the San Francisco Bar Association. The Bar Association provides free attorney representation for eligible low income individuals in housing negotiations that precede a landlord/tenant hearing. With thousands of these negotiations every year, the bar association trains almost 100 new attorneys every year. The study in development will use a randomized control trial (RCT) to test whether attorneys who receive the current training and then watch a VR video of a mock housing negotiation obtain better results for their clients than the group of attorneys who only receive the current training. This will be the first RCT of VR in the practice of law that we are aware of. If the results demonstrate that the attorneys who received the VR training received a better outcome for their clients, it would be an exciting step forward in legal training.

We are in the process of designing studies with other groups to test other models of VR interventions. This includes whether watching mock hearings in VR will work to improve outcomes of pro-se clients and the effect in different areas of the law. If you are interested in studying a VR project, please reach out to me at mstubenberg@law.harvard.edu.

1 thought on “Virtual Reality in Access to Justice

  • Congrats on the pilot in SF. Tiela Chalmers and I started that project in 2002-2004 and it is a great model for short pro bono eviction defense assistance in a city with strong rent control ordinances and strong tenant bar. Would love to hear how the VR experiment goes. When we started–we settled most cases and only the ones with strong reasons to go to court went forward. Often the settlements were favorable to the tenant–particularly when the stipulation included the landlord withdrawing the action (great for future renters or people looking for work). Would love to hear more about how the outcomes are defined for this intervention as they seem to be more lawyer/pro bono centric? Did the lawyers feel comfortable at the conference? Did they take other cases? Or will it also track tenant outcomes? This is a great group of non profits working together on preserving affordable housing. It used to be our new trainees/pro bono lawyers were ready to go and jump into the settlement conferences after the training. I used to go with first timers to be a support and available as supervising attorney. Is there now more reticence in doing this among new pro bono lawyers? Are some of them feeling they need more context before they jump into their first settlement conference? Would be interesting to figure out why if so. It is going to be a fun project with a great group! Congrats!

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