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The University of Southampton
Institute of Criminal Justice Research

Expert Evidence Under the Microscope

Published: 9 December 2014

On Saturday 29th November the Institute of Criminal Justice Research, together with Lifelong Learning hosted a study day, ‘Expert Evidence under the Microscope’. The fundamental aim of Lifelong Learning is to increase public engagement and build closer links between Southampton University and the wider community in Southampton, Hampshire and the South of England. This aim was reflected by the audience that included members of the public as well as research students from the University.

The day began with Phil Palmer, discussing some of the issues relating to the use of expert evidence, particularly the use of such evidence in criminal trials and whether the processes by which it is adduced are fair and efficient. He was followed by an excellent presentation given by Dean Jones. Dean is a retired senior police office currently working for the Home Office overseeing the provision of forensic pathology services to police and coroners in England and Wales. He considered the definition of 'expert' as opposed to a 'professional' witness. He then provided a historical reflection on expert medical opinion in murder cases before concluding with a discussion on current issues affecting the Criminal Justice System in respect of expert opinion.

Dr Matthew Nicholson completed the morning session with another thought provoking talk on the power and influence of the expert in legal processes and institutions. He then discussed the ways in which law constructs ideas about expertise and knowledge in society.

Dr Geth Rees from Southampton University together with Dr Dr Sinéad Ring from Kent Law School filled the afternoon session. Geth discussed what happens when expert evidence is presented that is based upon techniques not generally accepted? He debated the scientific fallout from two cases where the Alcohol Provocation Test was used to identify whether a person with a sleep disorder was more likely to perform violent behaviours after falling asleep whilst intoxicated. Drawing upon the medical debate, his presentation closed with some recommendations based on the Law Commission's recent report on the admissibility of expert evidence.

Sinead discussed how the courts in Ireland have transformed psychological and scientific expert knowledge about trauma into a legal category that may be used to frame legal responses to the evidential problems caused by delayed reporting. I will draw out the problems with this juridification of trauma in terms of the effects it has of silencing certain complainants’ accounts of harm and of silencing broader questions about societal and cultural responsibility for child abuse.

All of those who attended commented on how much they had enjoyed the day. For example one said, ‘excellent speakers illuminated a subject I knew little about’. Another participant suggested that, ‘it was one of the most enjoyable and stimulating and thought provoking days that I have enjoyed’.


"A superb day 10/10. The smaller group allowed more dialogue - best study day I've attended"

"Really interesting and lots of points to discuss with my friends with law degrees"

"The presentations have initiated an interest that I will try to follow up and maintain."

"An excellent day - thank you to all concerned."

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