Put the Peer Review Process in Legal Proceedings

Put the Peer Review Process in Legal Proceedings | HTR

Courts Need More Than One Opinion

It probably wouldn’t surprise you that many cases that land in the courtroom, from civil proceedings to criminal cases, are dependent on complex, scientific findings that can overwhelm and confuse a jury.

In the interest of fairness and to keep the evidence less confusing, judges are responsible for gauging the validity of such data based on expert witness findings which drills down to three ultimate questions:

  1. Is the current process fair?
  2. Is the judge equipped to understand the science behind the data?
  3. Is there a better way?

Why Expert Testimony Doesn’t Work

An expert witness is a person, who by virtue of education, training, skill or experience, is believed to have the specialized knowledge about a particular subject beyond that of the average person. The witness's specialized opinion about evidence or fact is referred to as the expert opinion.

However, their testimony may be rebutted with other experts, sometimes to the detriment of their reputations. In other words, a case can have two conflicting expert opinions about matters of science, which can leave the judge and jury “net neutral” about the scientific evidence presented in the case.

Why the Judge Isn’t Always Fair

Ultimately, the judge has to determine if the evidence will be entered into the case or not, but unfortunately, since most judges do not come from science educational backgrounds, their ability to interpret the data and ask probing questions of the experts is usually not within their comfort zone. In addition, their hidden bias may come into play based on past case history or real life experience; not exactly a perfect scenario where the stakes are high.

Why Peer Reviews Work

A peer review occurs when a piece of scientific work is looked at by reviewers for approval. Typically the evidence is evaluated by three reviewers.

A peer review is a key part of the scientific method, where the goal of the system is to ensure that work is stripped of hidden biases and unjustified assumptions through the review by one's professional colleagues. Accordingly, peer implies equals; the reviewers have the same or reasonably similar qualifications. But most importantly, peer reviews allow scientists (who love and honor their careers) to discuss and challenge the evidence among themselves before they take their findings to the judge.

As data becomes more available and complex, it is fully expected that peer reviews in the courtroom will be more common than expert witnesses, according to Scientific American, as the peer review process really advocates for no one – other than what the science actually proves.

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