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Courtroom science primers launched today

22 November 2017

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Easy-to-understand guides or primers on scientific evidence are being introduced in UK courts as a working tool for judges. The first two primers in the series, which cover DNA fingerprinting and techniques identifying people from the way they walk from CCTV, launch today. The primers – Forensic DNA analysis and Forensic gait analysis – are designed to assist the judiciary when handling forensic scientific evidence in the courtroom. The project is a collaboration between the judiciary, the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Each primer is 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 Anthony Hughes, Chair of the Primers Steering Group says, “These are the first in a series of primers designed to be working tools for judges. 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.”

Dr Julie Maxton, Executive Director of the Royal Society, says, “We are very pleased to be playing a leading role in bringing together scientists and the judiciary to ensure that we get the best possible scientific guidance into the courts – rigorous, accessible science matters to the justice system and society.”

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh says, “We owe a lot to Professors Sue Black and Niamh Nic Daéid, from the University of Dundee for this initiative. The Royal Society of Edinburgh is delighted to support two of its Fellows in this project.”

Professor Dame Sue Black, one of the world’s foremost experts in forensic anthropology, and Crown court judge, 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 Anne Rafferty of the Court of Appeal. The development of the DNA primer 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. The primers are available to download from the Royal Society website.