Supreme Court justice-championed guides could be ‘invaluable’, one judge tells Legal Cheek
The value of science in legal practice has been pushed to the forefront once again as judges will now be given easy-to-understand guides on dealing with forensic evidence.
The documents cover two topics at this stage: DNA fingerprinting, and computer techniques used to identify suspects on CCTV by how they walk (known as gait analysis). Both guides are available to view online.
The DNA-themed document was led by Niamh Nic Daéid, a University of Dundee forensic scientist, and the Court of Appeal’s Lady Justice Rafferty. Its aim is to “present a scientific understanding of current practice for DNA analysis used in human identification within a forensic science context”. Information in the guide includes the history and science of DNA, the importance of avoiding contamination and factors to be considered in the evaluation of DNA evidence.
As for the primer on gait analysis, this was written by Dame Sue Black, an expert in forensic anthropology, and Mark Wall QC, who is a barrister at Citadel Chambers and a judge. The primer explains gait analysis was first admitted as evidence in criminal proceedings in an Old Bailey case almost two decades ago. On this case, the document continues:
“The evidence included CCTV images which showed the defendant’s allegedly bow-legged gait which a podiatrist, acting as an expert witness, stated would be expected in only 5% of the UK population. The admission of such evidence is still infrequent today but is likely to become more common as CCTV cameras become more prevalent in both public and private spaces.”
It’s understood guidebooks covering the physics of vehicle collisions and what’s been termed “shaken baby syndrome” will come next.
These science bibles have been championed by Supreme Court justice Lord Hughes in his capacity as the chair of the Primers Steering Group. He said:
“[The guides] 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.”
The handbooks were produced in collaboration with the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and have generally received a decent response on social media. Hardwicke barrister and part-time judge Charlie Bagot, who recently spoke to Legal Cheek about his experience on the bench and the resources the judiciary uses to decide cases, thinks they sound “invaluable for dealing with technical cases”. But, he tells us:
“[T]he role of such guides will really be in areas where there is a consensus between the scientists about the role of and extent to which the science can help resolve a case. Like lawyers, scientists often take diametrically opposed views on a particular issue. Where there is a legitimate range of opinion with a sound foundation, it is right that the court continues to hear the competing scientific opinions and makes its own determination.”
Hughes and co’s initiative is a further example of how increasingly valuable science expertise is becoming in the law, a trend Legal Cheek has also traced at the more junior end of the profession.
As firms invest in ever more technology, science led by students hoping to impress is popping up here, there and everywhere: London-born student Joshua Browder’s DoNotPay lawbot is making headlines fortnightly, while a team of Cambridge law students and graduates working under the name CaseCrunch think they may have built an AI system that can predict certain legal outcomes better than lawyers can.