New Zealand Law Society - Forensic Science and the Law - A Guide for Police, Lawyers and Expert Witnesses

Forensic Science and the Law - A Guide for Police, Lawyers and Expert Witnesses

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Reviewed by Sarah Saunderson-Warner

The book is written as a guide for lawyers, police and expert witnesses and provides readers with practical insights into many key areas of forensic science encountered in criminal and traffic cases.

It is a departure from the usual legal text written by lawyers for lawyers. Written by Dr Anna Sandiford with contributions from a panel of experts it is very much written from the witnesses’ perspective.

The first four chapters are a general discussion of experts, their reports, their investigation and interpreting expert witness findings. These chapters would be of interest to law students and new practitioners, especially those who have never engaged an expert witness before. The advice contained in these chapters applies more widely to the process of engaging other expert witnesses outside of the forensic science field.

The following chapters move on to consider specific areas in which forensic science evidence is common. Each chapter provides a summary and then basic scientific information on the topic, followed by a list of documents that should be available through disclosure.

The information is general and gives an overview of the topic. It would provide a useful introduction to the topic for new practitioners and could be relevant to all stages of the criminal justice procedure. For example, the section on cannabis is relevant to sentencing; not just cross-examining a drug expert witness.

The scientific information will provide a starting point for lawyers’ research into the scientific area but because of its general nature, will not avoid the need for further research and enquiry. Particularly given the evolving nature of scientific development, wider reading will be required.

Written by scientists, there are sparse legal references, which mainly consist of statutory references with some case references. The book gives an insight into the witnesses’ perspectives of the criminal justice system (and lawyers) but in my view would have been enhanced by contributions from lawyers’ perspectives. That being said, the target audience is not just lawyers.

It is difficult to see how the book would be relevant to expert witnesses, who would possess more knowledge on their topic of expertise than the book contains, but the introductory chapters would be of interest to “experts in training”.

Law students as well as forensic science students would benefit from reading the text as would new practitioners. It provides a useful definition section and explanation of some of the acronyms used in the book (although some acronyms are those used by lay people rather than lawyers). However, those with more experience, looking to prepare cross-examination of experts may not be greatly assisted.

Although current, the text does not deal with some of the more cutting edge issues or more controversial forensic evidence that is being lead (or attempting to be lead) in courts in New Zealand.

The book covers a wide range of topics and can be easily navigated to read only the chapter required for a particular topic. The topics will be of relevance to a wide range of criminal prosecutions from drink driving, traffic crashes, drug, burglary, violence and sexual offences.

The text is a useful addition to what is available in the New Zealand market as it comes from a different perspective to existing texts. It is well structured and an easy read.

Forensic Science and the Law: A Guide for Police, Lawyers and Expert Witnesses, Brookers Ltd, December 2013, 978-0-864728-41-8, 385 pages, paperback and e-book, $88.20 (GST and p&h excluded).

Sarah Saunderson-Warner is the principal of Dunedin law firm Aspinall Joel. She is a member of the New Zealand Law Society’s Criminal Law Committee.

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