The UK parliament's science and technology committee has accused ministers of failing to engage in the debate surrounding the use of expert witnesses in court.
The UK parliament’s science and technology committee has accused ministers of failing to engage in the debate surrounding the use of expert witnesses in court. Committee members attacked the government for its response to a committee report on the use of forensic evidence in criminal trials.
The committee made several suggestions for improving the handling of expert witnesses and evidence in court so that judges and juries follow cases competently. The government however responded by saying the matter should be dealt with by other specialist bodies.
Committee members concluded that systems failures in the judicial system are to blame overall. Many expert witnesses are not prepared for the stress associated with cross-examination. The committee also warned that the weight attached to scientific evidence can be misleading - expert witnesses are sometimes shown evidence that suits only one side of the case.
It’s a view shared by John Lloyd, chairman of the RSC consultancy group, which gives advice to witnesses specialising in chemistry. ’It is difficult to see how an expert can truly be a servant of the court when he/she is placed in these kinds of situation,’ said Lloyd.
The select committee recommends that expert witnesses are trained in trial proceedings before their court appearance. The establishment of pre-trial hearings is recommended, so that areas of agreement or disagreement relating to forensic evidence are identified. Committee members also recommend that cases involving scientific evidence are tried by a specialist judge in the absence of a jury.
The reluctance of the government to tackle these issues head-on has frustrated the committee. One of its members, Brian Iddon MP, told Chemistry World ’I don’t think they’ve taken the issue of expert witnesses seriously at all. Their response is just book-passing to the professional organisations.’
The select committee will invite Home Office ministers to answer further questions in a forthcoming session, scheduled for the autumn. Gaetano Mancino
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