Transforming the Litigation Experience with Virtual Reality

By: Abigael Diaz

As technology advances and evolves, so should our legal system. The legal system can use technology to increase efficiency and accessibility to justice, while also decreasing costs for courts. Allowing modern technology such as virtual reality into the courtroom will likely have a strong influence on participation by increasing the number of people who can take part in the judicial system as well. 

Virtual reality is a computer-generated simulated experience that takes over users’ visual and auditory perceptions and allows them to enter a completely new virtual environment. There are various types of virtual reality, including but not limited to first-person immersion, augmented reality, and desktop view. In a first-person immersion setting, the user is completely engaged in the virtual environment, with as many senses as possible co-opted to maximize the experience. In augmented reality, which is frequently used in medical practice and aviation training, there is a virtual overlay of the environment the user is in; computer-generated visuals superimposed on a human body or plane controls can allow for better reinforcement of skills and more consistent results. Desktop view is a first-person virtual experience accessed through a desktop computer using a standard keyboard and mouse to navigate the experience. 

First-person immersion virtual reality can be used with a headset or head-mounted display that covers a user’s eyes, but some headsets also cover ears or have gloves to increase the sensory experience. Virtual reality often engages sight, hearing, and touch, but some systems have even experimented with virtual smell applications. The headset is frequently tethered to a computer using USB or HDMI chords to increase the system’s capabilities. Using tethered headsets will be imperative in the legal field in the next couple of years because currently, cordless headsets make sacrifices in the quality and accuracy of information delivered through the syste,. Nevertheless, even cordless headsets will eventually have a satisfactory quality with advancing technologies. 

Covid-19 has required courts to adapt to the pandemic and use new technologies to facilitate litigation, many courts opting for two-way live video options like Zoom. Simple video chat programs are a satisfactory solution for the pandemic but using virtual reality would enhance the experience. Virtual reality differs from two-way live video because it attempts to mimic life-like experiences within a 3D virtual space while applications like zoom create 2D face grids for users to view. The judicial system can use virtual reality to simulate a 3D social interaction that gives users a virtual experience similar to what the experience would be like in person. 

Virtual reality offers an alternative way to interact with the justice system as a party, judge, jury, or bystander. Virtual reality can increase accessibility to the justice system for all, which will result in a more diverse law system. The employment of virtual reality in the legal system will likely result in many benefits, and most importantly, it will radically change how individuals participate in litigation. 

Benefits from Virtual Reality in the Legal System

Increasing accessibility to the various stages of litigation will result in a more diverse courtroom experience. The American Bar Association believes a diverse legal profession will result in a more productive, just, and intelligent system on both a cognitive and cultural level. Diversity in the law is a good thing, as supported by legal psychologist Samuel Sommers’ experiment from 2006 that used over 200 mock jury participants and demonstrated that racially diverse juries deliberate longer, discuss facts from the case more, make fewer factual errors, and are more open talking about race’s role in the case. Having a diverse judicial system is necessary to ensure that the system is truly working for all people. 

Virtual reality can increase efficiency and, in turn, lower costs throughout the legal system. With virtual reality, travel costs can be saved by allowing people to meet remotely rather than in person. For example, legal teams could save money bringing by mailing witnesses virtual reality headsets and courts could save travel expenses by providing them to jurors when theyare required to travel to crime scenes. Saving the courts time and money will result in the ability to accept more cases at each level of the court’s system and increase the number of people able to render justice for themselves. Lower legal fees can increase the number of people who can afford lawyers and increase access to the judicial system as well. Currently, not everyone in the United States has access to an attorney or legal services, so lowering legal fees would diversify the client pool to include those experiencing poverty who frequently from either Black, Indigenous, or other communities of color.

Increasing efficiency is a potential opportunity for the court systems to catch up on cases too. There is currently a large case backlog, primarily in sexual assault and immigration cases, and the effects of Covid-19 have further exacerbated this problem. Some are describing the pandemic as a “double disaster.” In addition to the disease, there is also an increase in gender-based violence, impaired reproductive and sexual health, a loss of jobs and livelihoods, and increased forced marriages, migration, and human trafficking. Covid-19 is slowing down the efficiency of the courts and increasing the frequency of litigation as a factor of new arising cases. Those harmed most by the case backlog are disproportionally from marginalized communities, including immigrants, people of color, women, and nonbinary and trans individuals. 

Virtual reality can do more than increase the racial and class diversity in the courts and diversify the ability of people involved, as more disabled people could participate in a virtual reality system that accommodates their needs. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one in four adults in the United States is living with a disability. Virtual reality can accommodate people’s individual needs to increase participation. 

Virtual reality has even been known to help improve senses for some, and many people with low vision report that virtual reality technology actually improves their ability to see. Alex Lee lost his sight to a rare disease, but he was able to see again using virtual reality technology after five years. Lee went from seeing everything as an indecipherable blur to being able to see and play in a 1940’s virtual world. Lee’s sight improvement is made possible because of the high color contrast that virtual reality implements as well as intense magnification of objects that occurs from placing virtual reality screens so close to the eyes. 

Automatic and instant language translation for all court members is possible with virtual reality in addition to the benefits already discussed. Automatic interpretation for the variety of languages spoken in American courtrooms can remove language barriers that previously prevented individuals from accessing the legal system and might save courts significant money by reducing the need to pay for in person interpretation experts. It would also allow for more access to the courts. Another benefit to the adoption of such technology includes automatic closed captioning that might allow persons hard of hearing or the deaf to participate to a greater degree. It might also be helpful, or even imperative, for the neurodivergent community such that it could encourage people to remain focused and process their surroundings more effectively. 

Virtual reality generally increases the understanding of those using it. Users can have words defined for them instantly, leading to a better-informed population that can participate in a legal system that better caters to the individual’s understanding and information needs. Furthermore, automatic definitions could be useful for defining unfamiliar legal terms to non-lawyers who find themselves in an environment replete with “legalese” terminology. And moreover, virtual reality in certain contexts can allow individuals to more accurately recall important memories, which promotes increased accuracy in factfinding and prevents court reliance on fallible memories. For example, it would likely be possible for a jury member to rewatch a portion of a witness’s testimony before deliberating. As such, virtual reality can promote justice by increasing the quantity and quality of informed participants in the judicial system. 

Virtual reality has the ability to increase access to justice, lower costs, and improve participants’ understanding of all aspects of the judicial system. An overall increase in accessibility to the judicial system from many demographics that usually cannot access legal services or lawyers will be the likely result, and as such virtual reality may contribute to the diversification of the pool of people who can use the law, participate in it, and benefit from it. 

In the coming years, virtual reality will very likely change the legal system for the better. The law should use virtual reality technology to increase efficiency and accessibility while decreasing costs. Allowing modern technology such as virtual reality into the courtroom will diversify the law and litigation process, making revolutionary changes in the litigation experience at all stages.

Vaccine Patent Waivers: A Major Step Towards Ending the Covid-19 Pandemic?

By: Xiang Li

It has been two years now since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the existence of the COVID-19 global pandemic on March 11, 2020. Through the concerted efforts of healthcare systems, vaccine manufacturers, governments, and members of the public, the world finally has the upper hand in the uphill battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. However, given how infectious the virus is and the speed at which it evolves to escape sufficient human immune response, it is not yet the time to let our guard down and it is critical to redouble efforts to increase global vaccination rates

Importantly, the inequality in vaccination rates seen between low-income countries and the rest of the world remains a prominent problem. As of March 31, 2022, 79.0% of the populations of “high-income” countries have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and so have 81.2% of the populations of upper middle income countries. Approximately 59.2% of the populations of lower middle income countries have received at least one dose. On the other end of the spectrum, only 14.5% of the population of low-income countries have received at least one dose of the vaccine. The disparity is largely caused by the unaffordability of vaccines to people in low-income countries.

To solve this disparity, the national governments of India and South Africa submitted on October 2, 2020 a communication (IP/C/W/669) to the TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) Council of the WTO, proposing that the obligation of TRIPS members to recognize and enforce patent rights should be temporarily waived with respect to patents relating to COVID-19 vaccines, medicines, and equipment necessary for treating and preventing COVID-19. The patent waiver as proposed is not mandatory, it simply allows TRIPS members to waive patent protection in their own countries, if they choose to do so.

The legal basis of adopting a patent waiver lies in Article IX.3 of the Marrakesh Agreement, which establishes the WTO. Specifically, Article IX.3 provides that the Ministerial Conference of the WTO, with the support of three-quarters of WTO members, may waive an obligation imposed by the TRIPS Agreement.

The waiver proposal has gained support from more than 100 low-income countries, but has encountered obstructions from many high-income countries, including European Union countries, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland. On May 5, 2021, the Biden administration announced support for a patent waiver; however, it was not until recently that major parties of the WTO made progress towards the negotiation of the terms of the waiver. 

Specifically, a news report published on March 16, 2022 indicated that the European Union, the United States, India and South Africa have reached a compromise on the terms of the waiver. Notably, only countries that have exported less than 10% of the total global exports of COVID-19 vaccine doses in 2021 are entitled to invoke the waiver to use the patented materials. These criteria effectively exclude the European Union, China, and the United States from invoking the waiver, since these countries account for 39.3%, 33.7%, and 14.2% of global vaccine exports respectively. 

The United States could have taken a stronger stance on waiving intellectual property protections, but it has not — possibly because a waiver suspending domestic patent protection might violate the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The Supreme Court of the United States has recognized that patent rights are subject to the protection of the Takings Clause, just as property rights in a piece of land. At the same time, the United States has a strong interest in preventing China from obtaining the right to invoke the patent waiver, to make sure China cannot use United States’ proprietary technologies to gain an advantage in vaccine development and other related biotechnology.

This recent compromise on the terms of the waiver might be a significant step towards passing the waiver at the WTO, since the European Union (composed of 28 countries, each having a vote) has been the strongest opponent of the waiver, as indicated by its statements made at several WTO meetings. Many scholars and policy makers believe that passing the waiver is a necessary step to provide equal and affordable access to vaccines to people in low-income countries. If the entire world community is vaccinated before the coronavirus can evolve into other highly contagious and potentially even more deadly variants, the world may be able to finally declare victory over the pandemic.

Telemedicine to the Rescue? Mail Order Abortion in Times of Crisis

By: H.R. Fitzmorris

Since the time of the Comstock Act, reproductive healthcare seekers have turned to networks outside of the traditional doctor’s office to circumvent legal and social obstacles. Almost 60 years after the restriction of mail-order contraception was abandoned, Americans have once again—with the aid of the internet— found themselves relying on the post office to meet reproductive healthcare needs through telehealth. And once again, they face the familiar struggle of navigating complex webs of overlapping regulations and political hostility limiting their access to vital resources and information. However, the healthcare crisis spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting regulatory and legal changes, have helped abortion and reproductive healthcare seekers circumvent some of the most burdensome barriers to access. The question now is whether, together, technological advancement in online telehealth and the relaxation of state and federal regulations will be enough to address the “access crisis” that will ensue if the current onslaught of draconian abortion laws survives legal challenges.

The History of Telehealth and How It Works

The concept of telehealth has existed in some form or another for decades. Telehealth, according to the Mayo Clinic, “is the use of digital information and communication technologies, such as computers and mobile devices, to access health care services remotely and manage your health care.” Some clear advantages of telehealth are the ability to access care without the additional cost and burden of traveling to a doctor’s office, increased access to information and records, and increased speed of communication with healthcare providers.

There are, however, drawbacks. The regulatory system managing telehealth providers is fragmented between state and federal requirements, and insurance coverage of telehealth appointments varies according to location and provider. Licensure requirements currently depend on the location of the patient, so some specialist services or medical providers may not be licensed to provide care to patients in certain locations. Additionally, access to telehealth can be impeded by restrictive interpretations of existing state statutes and regulations. For example, state requirements that clinicians conduct an in-person physical exam of a patient before providing telehealth or issuing a prescription can dramatically impede the utility of telehealth for certain patients.

Currently telehealth makes up a small portion of the health industry as a whole. A study conducted from March 1, 2020 through November 30, 2021 revealed that the vast majority of Americans prefer in-person healthcare, “and the total addressable market for telehealth is less than 1% of the health economy.” However, the lessons learned throughout the COVID-19 pandemic may spur further expansion and increased interest in telehealth.

Covid-19 Changes

The COVID-19 pandemic upended the normal operation of innumerable day-to-day activities for most Americans. Once simple tasks became onerous, if not impossible. Notably, routine healthcare became extremely difficult to schedule when COVID exposure risks closed doctors’ offices, and the industry as a whole buckled under extreme demand. Faced with restricted access to in-person office visits due to lockdown orders and overwhelmed providers, patients turned to telemedicine just as quarantined workers turned to Zoom.

In order to facilitate patient access to healthcare, Congress introduced a myriad of temporary regulatory relaxations and measures such as increased Medicare and Medicaid coverage of telehealth services, HIPAA flexibility, and notably, allowed authorized providers to prescribe controlled substances via telehealth, without the need for an in-person medical evaluation.

This affected not just those with pulled muscles, allergic reactions, or people with other routine but time-sensitive ailments that a quick 15-minute chat with a doctor and a quick prescription would clear up. Those experiencing unwanted pregnancies, who faced the daunting prospect of delayed access to care in understandably time-sensitive situations, also were faced with lockdown and quarantine orders in the most abortion-friendly states. In hostile states, the harm of existing restrictive abortion regulations increased under COVID-19 (such as those requiring multiple in-person clinic visits like mandatory waiting periods and ultra-sound requirements). Additionally, some states that were hostile to abortion seized the opportunity to label abortion care as “non-essential,” thereby entirely restricting abortion access.

These restrictions made early access to safe, reliable, and self-administrable abortion care all the more vital. Medical abortion, which is achieved through the simple administration of a single or multi-dose pill, is available up to 10 weeks from conception. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the reach of medical abortion through telemedicine was limited by “specific restrictions on mifepristone in the United States as well as laws that specifically prohibit telemedicine for abortion.” Specifically, the FDA required that either of the two abortion pills be dispensed in a medical clinic, in-person.

However, with the relaxation of the restrictions placed on telemedicine providers that came with the governmental response to COVID, the FDA relaxed the in-person requirement and allowed abortion pills to be obtained by mail, eliminating the need for a doctor visit and the resulting delay in access. Initially this relaxation was temporary, but in December, 2021, the FDA announced that the change will be permanent. Though a welcome reduction in barriers to safe and effective abortion access, states are still free to place their own restrictions on telemedicine providers that offer their services in their jurisdictions. Currently, 19 states prohibit telemedicine facilitated abortions.

Without these barriers, telemedicine can potentially increase abortion access to abortion seekers in underserved, isolated communities. Telemedicine was, in a limited way, able to address severe need in a crisis that strongly necessitated these services. For abortion seekers in the United States, the crisis is far from over. Current restrictive state statutes and attempts to overturn Roe v. Wade continually threaten access to the constitutional right to choose to terminate a pregnancy. In many states, local access to abortion care could disappear entirely in the coming years. What remains unclear is whether further expansion of access to telemedicine will be able to help fill these gaps and what policy changes will be necessary in order to do so.