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Embedding standards of best practice for expert evidence within the justice system

The justice system in the UK and elsewhere has become increasingly reliant on scientific evidence and expert witness testimony. Whether a medical specialist, IT specialist, forensic scientist or a forensic accountant, an expert witness should have specific knowledge or experience of a particular field or discipline, and their role is to provide professional insight and objectivity to, ultimately, ensure a just outcome. However, as cases such as those relating to the Birmingham Six or so-called “Shaken Baby Syndrome” have shown, miscarriages of justice do occur. The Northumbria Centre for Evidence and Criminal Justice Studies (NCECJS) is leveraging its decade-long expertise in the use of expert evidence to help set standards of best practice and implement rule changes at the highest level.

Comprising academics from a broad range of disciplines (from law to medicine, business and computing), members of the judiciary, legal practitioners, policy makers and criminal justice stakeholders, the Centre has considerable experience and knowledge in the area of expert evidence. Much of the Centre’s focus is on the use of expert evidence within the criminal justice system, although its remit does extend to the use of expert evidence in the civil justice system and the family courts.

With many of the NCECJS’ members having acted as, or engaged with, expert evidence within the context of the justice system, the Centre’s work in this area contributes to a high level of credibility and influence that goes back a number of years. In 2011, the NCECJS responded to, and was cited in, the Law Commission’s Expert Evidence in Criminal Proceedings consultation paper. The report subsequently proved highly influential in the decision of the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee to amend the Criminal Procedure Rules and the Criminal Practice Directions, paving the way for new reliability criteria for expert evidence in criminal proceedings.

A key component of the Centre’s work is active engagement with stakeholders and policy makers through events, consultations, presentations and publications. In 2016, for example, the Irish Law Reform Commission requested the NCECJS to work through a set of questions relating to expert evidence, influencing its report on the Consolidation and Reform of Aspects of the Law and Evidence. In the same year, Professor Michael Stockdale, the Centre Director and Head of the Northumbria Law School, delivered an invited presentation entitled ‘Expert Evidence in Criminal Proceedings; Current Challenges and Opportunities’, which was founded on NCECJS research, to the Criminal Bar Association. As a result, in 2017, Professor Stockdale and Associate Professor Adam Jackson were invited to participate in and present at an event hosted by Dr Gillian Tully, the Forensic Science Regulator, on ‘Developing an Evaluative Interpretation Standard for England & Wales’. NCECJS research was used in the development of new guidance for the ‘Development of Evaluative Opinions’ as a key part of the new Forensic Science Regulator Codes of Practice and Conduct, published in 2021.

In testimony to the importance of its work, the Centre has attracted significant national and international research funding, including from the European Commission, the Belgian Ministry of Justice and the Nuffield Foundation. Moreover, a substantial number of chapters from internal and external members of the NCECJS are due to be published, alongside other contributors, in a book entitled Forensic Science Evidence and Expert Witness Testimony: Reliability through Reform? by Edward Elgar Publishing. Edited by Professor Stockdale and Professor Paul Roberts from the University of Nottingham, the book has already been described as original and insightful, and is tipped to be a world leading text on expert evidence.

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