What can we do to improve the interaction between forensic science, education and the law?

In this blog post Allan Jamieson (Director, The Forensic Institute, allanj@theforensicinstitute.com) highlights some key concerns about the ways in which forensic science is used in court, and discusses the role that higher education might play in addressing some of these concerns.

The 11th Forensic Research and Teaching (FORREST) conference will be held in Glasgow, 30 June – 1 July, and will provide an opportunity to discuss developments in forensic science and its use in law.

 

Concerns

Growing concerns have been expressed in a number of jurisdictions about the ‘science’ in forensic science and how it is used in court:

“In a number of forensic science disciplines, forensic science professionals have yet to establish either the validity of their approach or the accuracy of their conclusions, and the courts have been utterly ineffective in addressing this problem.” (National Academy of Science (USA) Report 2009).

 “Recent legal cases in the UK may have potentially begun to move us into what is an uncomfortable arena, where suggestions that years of practical experience are more important to the courts than sound science” (Editorial, Science & Justice, 2010).

The need for improvement continues to grow, as the understanding of science in a legal context would appear more problematic than ever before:

“We do hope that the courts will not be troubled in future by attempts to rely on published work by people who have no practical experience in the field and therefore cannot contradict or bring any useful evidence to bear on issues that are not always contained in scientific journals.” (R v Weller 2010).

In light of the increasing criticism of court decisions involving science and medicine in the UK and abroad, and despite an apparently insatiable interest in forensic science by the general public, the comprehension of science in criminal court proceedings now presents more challenges than ever. University forensic science teaching tends to treat the legal process as a fairly sterile process.  In the real world it has been described as trench warfare.  How do we connect the players? How are the gulfs between science, education, and the legal understanding of science to be bridged?

Key issues

Particular issues at the front line of forensic science and criminal law today include the admission of DNA results accompanied only by the scientist’s subjective opinion of the strength of the evidence, following the judgement of the Court of Criminal Appeal in R v Dlugosz (2013).

Another live issue is the use of the so-called ‘verbal scale’, which is an attempt to corral verbal expressions about the strength of expert evidence into a standard eight or nine-point scale. Even though research shows  that the scale terms are not fully understood by the public. The advent of new technologies also continues to provide even more opportunity for understanding and misunderstanding, as courts here and abroad have delivered different judgements on the validity of the same technologies.  Part of this arises because different jurisdictions apply different admissibility standards for expert evidence; some jurisdictions, such as the UK, have no formal admissibility standards for expert evidence beyond “is it relevant?”.

Better understanding by both scientists and legal professionals may be one part of the solution.  Improving legal practitioners’ understanding of the scientific method and the ‘tools of the trade’, and improving scientists’ understanding of the requirements of the legal process would be a major contribution. We think that the FORREST conference is part of the solution. By bringing together scientists, lawyers, and educators, and providing an environment where lively informed discussion can occur, FORREST assists the process of understanding that must exist to create a new understanding between the different participants responsible for bringing scientific evidence to court and therefore contribute to better justice.

This extends to the fundamental aspect affecting everyone – Education.  One of the three streams of presentations at FORREST 2015 will deal with education, including innovative delivery methods and how to educate jurors about forensic science. The other two streams are Law and Science. The Law programme is already filling up fast, with three QC’s scheduled to speak on topics as wide-ranging as admissibility and the Lockerbie bombing. The scientists have an exciting programme from distinguished scientific practitioners and researchers on topics including the latest in isotope ratio analysis, facial recognition, and DNA profiling. The Forensic Institute, which hosts the event, has a history of involvement with leading cases such as R v Hoey, Reed & Reed, R v T, and R v Weller, including international casework in New Zealand and United States. They will be drawing on this and their published work on issues such as expertise, the Likelihood Ratio, Low Template DNA analysis, and the use of the verbal scale to provide some of the presentations at FORREST 2015.

Discussion

What role do you think learning and teaching in higher education can play in improving the interaction between science and the law?

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