22 November 2017Print This Post

Scientists and lawyers team up to provide evidence primers for judges

Neuberger: Primers will save money and time

The judiciary has worked with the Royal Society to create primers on scientific evidence as a working tool for judges.

The first two primers in the series, covering DNA fingerprinting and techniques identifying people from the way they walk from CCTV, are designed to assist the judiciary when handling forensic scientific evidence in the courtroom.

Each primer is described as “a concise document presenting a plain English, authoritative account of the technique in question, as well as considering its limitations and the challenges associated with its application”.

They have been written by leading scientists and working judges, and peer reviewed by legal practitioners, all of whom have volunteered their time to the project.

Supreme Court justice Lord Hughes, who chairs the primers steering group, said: “They aim to tackle the agreed and uncontroversial basis underlying scientific topics, which crop up from time to time in courts. The objective is to provide a judge with the scientific baseline from which any expert dispute in a particular case can begin.

“We have been very privileged to have the co-operation in preparing them of the two Royal Societies of London and Edinburgh. We are very grateful to their eminent scientists for taking the time to put complex science into a form which addresses practical trial-related questions from judges.”

Writing in the science journal Nature last year as the process began, the then president of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger, said primers would save money and time because the issues they detailed would not realistically be open to challenge.

He explained: “They would also help in assessing the reliability of expert witnesses who give evidence on such issues, and they would increase the proportion of cases that are settled without a trial.

“The fact that opinions that are generally accepted in the scientific world sometimes turn out to be wrong is no barrier to this proposal. It is an inherent risk in giving and weighing up scientific evidence.”

Professor Dame Sue Black, one of the world’s foremost experts in forensic anthropology, and Crown Court judge Mark Wall QC led the primer on gait analysis.

The primer on DNA analysis was led by Professor Niamh Nic Daéid, a professor of forensic science at the University of Dundee, and Lady Justice Rafferty of the Court of Appeal.

Its development also drew on the expertise of Sir Alec Jeffreys, the inventor of genetic fingerprinting who in 1984 discovered a method of showing the variation in the DNA of individuals, and Nobel Prize-winning scientist Sir Paul Nurse.

Whilst the Forensic DNA analysis primer covers an established scientific technique used widely as evidence in UK courts and many courts around the world, the Forensic gait analysis primer considers a young, relatively new form of evidence in the UK criminal courts and advises that the scientific evidence supporting gait analysis is “extremely limited”.

Future primers on the topics of statistics and the physics of vehicle collisions are planned.

Hard copies of the primers will be distributed to courts in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland through the Judicial College, the Judicial Institute, and the Judicial Studies Board for Northern Ireland.

They are also available to download from the Royal Society website.

By Neil Rose


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