Virtual courtroom prepares vulnerablewitnesses

January 19, 2001

Computer scientists at Nottingham University are creating a "virtual courtroom" to help prepare vulnerable witnesses for real-life questioning by barristers.

The move follows changes in the law brought about by the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act last year, which for the first time offered vulnerable witnesses, such as children with learning difficulties, the chance to give evidence in court. This would be achieved with the help of "special measures" assistance from, for example, an intermediary.

Members of the Ann Craft Trust, a charity based at Nottingham University's Centre for Social Work, came up with the idea for a virtual courtroom as a way of helping guide such witnesses through the complicated legal system and to help build their confidence in giving evidence.

The act allows witnesses to give evidence and be cross-examined either through a CCTV link or on a pre-trial video.

Pam Cooke, the trust's director, said: "This is very helpful, but it is clear that, regardless of where the evidence is to be given, it will be a demanding experience for both adults and children with learning disabilities."

With funding from Nottinghamshire Co-op, the trust launched a project involving the university's computer scientists working with a group of young people with learning disabilities from a local school.

Photographs of Nottingham Crown Court were taken from many different angles to enable the computer experts to create a virtual courtroom around which the young people could "walk". Judges, barristers and clerks were added to the courtroom, and each given an easy-to-understand dialogue explaining their role.

The next step will be for the young people to role play, pretending to be witnesses while members of staff play the courtroom personnel.

Ms Cooke said: "Among the things we want to stress to them is that it is OK to say that they don't understand the questions they are being asked or that they simply don't know the answer."

The computer program may eventually be available to support groups working with children and adults with learning difficulties, and other organisations such as the Probation Service.

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