Musing from the Panel

Prof. Anne Wallace is a valued member of the Forensic Foundations' Panel of Advisers.  Here she reflects on the delivery of Expert Evidence, especially remotely. 

I've been fascinated to watch, over the past 10 years or so, a mini-revolution that has taken place in the way courts receive forensic evidence; one that has received surprisingly little attention.  That's the fact that an increasing number of forensic witnesses will testify from outside the courtroom, that is, by audio-visual link (or 'videolink' as it is termed in some jurisdictions).  In research I did for my doctoral thesis in 2012, I found that, in Victoria, up to nearly 50% of forensic evidence in Victoria, in committal hearings was being taken by this method, and a significant percentage of forensic evidence in trials.

As we know, to be effective, the expert has to assume something of an educative role.  So as well as recounting what they did, and their findings and/or opinion to the court, a forensic witness needs to be able to communicate enough knowledge of the fundamentals of their scientific discipline to a lay audience (judges, lawyers and jurors) so that audience is then able to make sense of their testimony as it relates to the individual case. In this respect, the expert’s function is akin to a teacher and their communication skills need to be of that order.  The best forensic witnesses performances that I have seen have been those where the expert has embraced this role thoughtfully,  bearing in mind the audience and using different presentation tools, such as diagrams, exhibits, visual aids, PowerPoint presentations, to explain concepts and findings, in ways that complement their oral evidence.

However, there has been very little thought given to the implications for the expert's evidence, when they have to try and perform this task from a remote witness room.  What difference might it make to the way their evidence is received?  What extra things do that have to think about and do in order to successfully communicate their evidence?  What sort of facilities and support should they have available to assist them at the 'remote end?' What additional training do they need?  I suggest that these are all questions that forensic experts, the services that employ them and those who call their evidence, are increasingly going to need to grapple with as the trend for court proceedings to move 'online', wholly or in part, seems bound to accelerate.

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