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Science and the law

Our science and the law programme brings together scientists and members of the judiciary to discuss and debate key areas of common interest and to ensure the best scientific guidance is available to the courts. 

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Primers for courts

The judicial primers project is a unique collaboration between members of the judiciary, the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Designed to assist the judiciary when handling scientific evidence in the courtroom, the primers have been written by leading scientists and members of the judiciary, peer reviewed by practitioners, and approved by the Councils of the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. 

Each primer presents an easily understood and accurate position on the scientific topic in question, as well as considering the limitations of the science, challenges associated with its application and an explanation of how the scientific area is used within the judicial system. The primers are created under the direction of a Steering Group chaired by Lord Hughes of Ombersley and distributed to courts in conjunction with the Judicial College, the Judicial Institute, and the Judicial Studies Board for Northern Ireland.

The first two primers on forensic DNA analysis and forensic gait analysis were launched on 22 November 2017.

Neuroscience and the law

In 2011 the Royal Society developed a project, Brain Waves, consisting of four modules, aimed at investigating developments in neuroscience and their implications for society and public policy. As the final part of the Brain Waves project, the Society published a short volume of essays under the title, Neuroscience and the Law. The volume made a number of recommendations for bridging the gap between legal professionals and neuroscientists to better communicate relevant findings, for training and education, and for building applied research capacity.

The Royal Society, thanks to generous support from the Dana Foundation, has created a programme of seminars, lectures, CPD training and other meetings to bridge the gap between neuroscience and law. 

In partnership with the Judicial College, we are hosting a series of seminars for senior judges on scientific topics relevant to court proceedings. Topics have included Memory in Testimony, Uncertainty and Probability, Mental Capacity, Pain, Machine Learning and Substance Addiction. Future seminars will consider Human gene editing, Robotics, and Causation.  

We have also held a series of three regional lectures in 2016/17 in partnership with the Judicial College as part of their professional development programme. The first lecture was hosted by Professor Ray Dolan FRS in Manchester on ‘Fact and Fiction in Brain Imaging’. The second lecture took place in in London, where Dr Steve Fleming delivered a talk on ‘What makes a decision autonomous’ and the third lecture was held in Birmingham where Professor Gilean McVean FRS explored ‘DNA and the law’. 

In addition in October 2017 we partnered with the Judicial College to run a pilot CPD seminar for over 160 Circuit Judges and Recorders as part of the Judicial College criminal training prospectus. Sir David Spiegelhalter OBE FRS led a seminar on Probability and the law. We are now working with the College on future CPD seminars and talks.

In 2015 the former President of The Supreme Court, Lord David Neuberger PC FRS, gave a talk at the Royal Society exploring ‘Science and Law: Contrast and Cooperation’. His lecture considered the similarities and differences in method between legal professionals and scientific researchers, as they strive to reach conclusions using data and evidence.