Scottish courts are embarking on a £500,000 project to trial the use of virtual reality technology – to help victims and witnesses prepare for giving evidence.

People who take part in court proceedings often find the experience daunting, uncomfortable and even traumatic – so the government-funded pilot aims to familiarise them with the process.

The virtual court project will allow victims to ‘walk through’ a three-dimensional (3D) world, comprising actual videos of the court building where their case will be held.

The system uses cutting-edge software to allow victims and witnesses to interact in a virtual environment that includes depictions of the people and objects they can expect to encounter when they go to court.

The project will enable victims and witnesses to be supported at all times by Victim Support Scotland (VSS) volunteers as they experience the virtual court environment. This will remove the need to travel to court prior to their hearing date, while allowing people to familiarise themselves with what can be an unfamiliar, daunting and often retraumatising environment.

The project – a partnership between VSS, tech provider Immersonal and CivTech, the Scottish Government’s public sector-focused innovation accelerator – has delivered a working prototype for Glasgow Sheriff Court and the High Court in Glasgow with wider development and roll out over the next year. 

Angela Constance, cabinet secretary for justice and home affairs, said: “We continue to put victims at the heart of the criminal justice system, their needs are an absolute priority. However victims and witnesses can naturally find giving evidence a daunting prospect. This unique project, using innovative technology to support and prepare victims for attending court, could prove transformative.

“It has the potential to reduce anxiety and additional trauma, and also reduces the need to travel often long distances for victims to familiarise themselves with a new environment before experiencing it ‘in real life’. We hope that this will reduce retraumatisation and anxiety, supporting victims to give the highest quality evidence.

“This project is part of the Scottish Government‘s wider work that has seen more than £93m invested through the justice budget over the past five years to prioritise victims’ rights and needs. Our Victim Centred Approach Fund continues this important commitment, making £48m available to victims’ organisations.”

Kate Wallace, chief executive of Victim Support Scotland, said: “Victims and witnesses often tell us of the retraumatising effects caused by giving evidence in court and that it can cause as much anxiety as the crime itself. Victim Support Scotland strongly advocates for victims being able to give evidence remotely and in trauma-informed environments. 

“This virtual reality experience will provide just that and can be accessed through a headset available with the help of volunteers from Victim Support Scotland, as well as through laptops, smart phones and tablets thereby offering more choice and access about how to prepare for court at a time and place that suits the victim.”

The cost of the project is being met by CivTech (£393,000) and the Scottish Government (£131,000). VSS is now working with Immersonal on the first steps towards making the experience available at all 52 criminal courts in Scotland.