Muddling through will have a corrosive effect on justice.
Science, we assume, always moves forward. But this week’s feature on expert witnesses (‘Science friction’) tells a different story. Across much of the legal system, most worryingly in criminal justice, a shortfall in funding means experts can find it a challenge to deliver on budget while maintaining professional standards.
Judges, practitioners and juries think and act as if forensic evidence and expert opinion are becoming ever more reliable, and find or convict on this basis. In reality the evidence presented may have been poorly tested, badly understood or simply wrong.
People in a court setting have not, in Michael Gove’s striking phrase, ‘had enough of experts’.
But in areas where experts are relied on, not least DNA evidence, the gap between our expectation of certainty and the reality is dangerous. Scenarios exist where evidence presented is misread by the court, possibly contaminated and subject to inadequate scrutiny. The risk of miscarriages of justice remains real.
The root of the problems is not just cuts. As forensic science regulator Dr Gillian Tully notes, reforms have created an ‘unstable market’. Further, the use of single joint experts in disputes has not delivered the benefits expected.
The use of experts needs urgent attention. Simply muddling through current problems will have a corrosive effect on justice.